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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.