Question of the Day: How to Stop Restroom Sabotage?

(Photo: Michael Coté)

A reader named Olaf Winter writes in with a problem that perhaps you all can help solve?

Hello Dubner & Levitt,

During a Parent Teacher Association meeting in my son’s high school in Essen, Germany, I heard complaints about a growing problem with unbelievably dirty toilets, or to be more precise, with the problem of adolescent girls smirching, soiling, polluting, dripping and littering at the restrooms.

I’m talking about unrolled packs of toilet paper stuffed into the toilet; about smearings on the walls (with pens in the best case). I forgo the more unsavory details. You probably have an idea of what I mean. The school I am talking about is one of the best schools in town. It is a newly built complex with beautiful architecture, lots of space and light. The pupils have an upper-middle-class background. And still, when they are in the restroom at least some of them behave like savages. It seems as if these patterns have turned habitual because whenever a janitor takes care of the rooms, it takes just a few hours before the restrooms turn into a dirty disgusting mess again. The girls have a good idea of who the mudlarks are — but they remain silent and give in to some “I can’t change it anyway” scheme, and act accordingly.

Is there a promising “economists” way to avoid such misbehavior in the first place? Maybe to modify the situation in terms of introducing incentives of punishments for the girls?

I suggested to hire a full-time toilet lady and to pass on the costs to all pupils — on which the PTA predicted serious opposition from the pupils’ parents (because of course “their kids don’t do that!”)

Another way would be to pass on the costs of a full toilet-room cleaning to the few deliberate contaminators that are being caught once in a while. But since there is no security personnel in German schools, such detections are rare. Oh, and video cameras are no option.

Do you know a best practice for the matter of ensuring the cleanliness of public places that are hard to supervise?

By the way: while the major problem in girls’ toilets is contamination, the boys at this school enjoy more technical sabotage. The principal told me that since they first allowed boys at the school two years ago they have to change the motion detectors in the bathrooms (that control the light) at least once a day. The boys like to remove these just for fun. 


Close them.

Or, instead of a full time bathroom attendant, schedule specific restroom times only twice a day maybe, with a janitor or some other available personal being an attendant for 1 hour each.

But closing them is my best option. Don't shit in your own nest is a strong lesson that needs to be learned.

Michael Mozill

Why not a reward for all students for every day/week/month/semester that the bathrooms stay clean? This could give the offending students a reason to stop and the innocent students an incentive to turn in the offenders.

Josh S.

Maybe provide rewards for the whole school if the bathroom stays clean. Or threaten the cancellation of a school trip for example. That will turn the "non-action" students against the students who vandalize.


In the least noxious case, graffiti, you'll never win. People have been drawing on the walls for thousands of years; it's a human thing.

I suspect that the rest of the vandalism is an expression of fundamental unhappiness with the students' situation. This is a school, so we're dealing not with adults but with kids who are in their teen years. Characteristic of that age is rebellion against authority (as they start to assert and exercise independence) and a feeling of resentment against control and structure. That isn't to say that one should let teens do whatever they want, but I am pessimistic about any imposed structure doing anything substantive to control these kids' behavior. If you hire a bathroom attendant, I bet you'll have clean bathrooms but some other part of the school will be regularly defaced.

What if, instead of having the janitor clean the bathroom, each kid had to clean the bathroom? How big is the school? My high school had a student body of 2,500 and there's no way that would have worked. But if the school is only a couple of hundred students and there are several bathrooms, then maybe each student could be assigned a work team of three or four and have to clean a bathroom once a week. The kids stuck cleaning up the trashed bathrooms will certainly resent the students doing the damage, and this might encourage some self-policing.

The kids are not unintelligent and I'm sure they, like every other human, loathe unnecessary work. Let them see the connection between tidy facilities and an easy work shift.


Douglas Baker

Add a turnstile, preferably one that can require change, at the door. Start it at a median value; in the US, I would charge a dime. If things continue, increase the rate.


Define specific standard duties for the paid staff (ie, emptying trash) and make the students responsible for all work above and beyond those duties.


Take pictures of the most disgusting examples and post them anywhere that the students eat


During class - bathroom passes with a sign-in/out sheet. Allowance of 5 pieces of toilet paper per student. (No extra paper or towels kept in the bathrooms) Teachers could take turns chaperoning the bathroom during class passing times.


Switch to a system similar to Japanese schools, where students clean the classroom and bathrooms when the day is over.

Kids don't mess up rooms they know they have to clean up afterward.


What about what a lot of Japanese schools do. Where it's actually the students who are in charge of keeping the schools clean. They can do a rotating schedule on which homeroom cleans that floor that day. This makes them responsible for their actions and treats everyone the same.

This also might help determine who the culprit is because it is less likely that the culprit will dirty a restroom if they know they have to clean it that afternoon.

Enter your naDanme...

Close the teacher's private restrooms so they are forced to use the same ones as the kids. That creates a risk that the kids will be caught. Also, you can tell the teachers that when the problem is resolved, they will get there restrooms back, so they will be incentivized to police the restrooms regularly.

[WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us '0 which is not a hashcash value.


A camera outside the restroom to record who goes into it when. Then tell the students they must report any vandalism or be blamed for it along with the perpetrator. Have staff inspect the restroom periodically.

This will narrow down the suspects since it's likely only a small number who are doing it. More likely when they know they face a good chance of being caught it will stop.


the answer is just to clean the restrooms ALL the time.

hire someone full-time just to clean restrooms all day, going from one to another and back again. i'm guessing vandalism won't continue if no one's going to see it.


This solution does not scale well to large schools:

- Lock the bathrooms.
- Students must sign out a key.
- Bathroom is checked on a regular (but short) interval, after each class, or on the hour.

If the door is left unlocked and/or the bathroom is defaced, all the students who signed out a key will be responsible for cleaning it.

This is important - change the locks once a month. you only need to spring for a dozen lock sets, but it keeps the intrepid vandal from simply stealing/copying the key.


Give the kids a corkboard or whiteboard to "express" themselves while in the bathroom. I think the problem with this generation is boredom. I'm assuming they probably don't have their smartphones while at school and are just looking for alternative to angry birds. Give them an old fashion way of social networking on a replaceable board and the problem should resolve itself. Idle hands not money is the root of all evil when it comes to children.


There are a couple possibilities.

One, close the restroom when it is dirty until a daily cleaning takes place.

"Sorry kids, if you need to pee, you'll have to find a restroom that hasn't been trashed. All of them are trashed? Sorry. You're out of luck. If you know who it is, try convincing them to stop."

Two, make the kids clean the restrooms. I realize this might be difficult with safety and sanitation issues, but I don't think it would take long for the kids to stop trashing the restrooms if they are going to be cleaning them.

Have the kids randomized, so every time a bathroom gets trashed, five random girls are pulled to immediately go clean things up. Janitor goes with them, gets them the gloves, mops, and oversees them, but doesn't do it.

I don't think it would take more than a week for it to stop. Even if the perps aren't immediately called to clean things up, the innocent kids would be VERY strongly motivated to convince the perps to stop.



Whoops, too slow. People already posted both of my ideas.


At my high school, we the students had to clean. So we were personally responsible for the cleanliness of the bathrooms. Our school was pretty clean since the guy next to you would punch in the arm for leaving wrappers on the ground since it was his cleaning responsibility. Self policed system.


This will be solved in five years if you put most normal janitorial maintenance under the responisbility of teachers and kids. Not just in this school but throughout the school system. Start with the youngsters and gradually push through the secondary schools. Don't do it as punishment for all when the perpetrators are unknown - just get kids used to cleaning up after it. This approach is actually part of what schools should be for: education. Teach the kids to enjoy making an environment clean and keeping it clean.

Rewards for lack of offense seems good for the short run, but it will implode after a few years.

A far easier approach is simply to install cameras and record all activity in the restrooms. Then punish the offenders. Easy, but the only thing the kids learn is that the adults are in control.


Detention = Bathroom Cleaning. Chances are there is a rough correlation to vandals and those having other disciplinary issues. This is also a group that I imagine could exert more than typical peer pressure to keep bathrooms clean. As an added bonus you make detention less appealing.

[WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us '0 which is not a hashcash value.