Bathroom breakdown: vaping, vandalism

  • vape
    The teenage vaping epidemic has changed the high school bathroom landscape nationwide. Photo:
  • bathroom
    The first floor boys' bathroom has been locked on a regular basis and was inaccessible after school on January 13. Photo: Mandi Bailey
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    Vandalism is one reason administrators cited for locking boys' bathrooms.

For months, boys at ARHS have lodged complaints about the state of their bathrooms.

First, vaping (or e-cigarette use) in boys’ bathrooms is common, meaning students often enter a restroom to find a crowd of teens standing together (or even in stalls) vaping. 

Sometimes they are caught, forced to hand over their supplies, and face consequences, but many evade notice.

Second, vandalism to boys’ bathrooms (including ripping off stall doors, tearing down soap dispensers, jamming toilets, and graffiti) has led to bathrooms being locked for hours or days at a time. 

Students have caused thousands of dollars in damages, which means offenders, if caught, will pay a hefty fine. But the vandalism continues; students either don’t know who the perpetrators are or are unwilling to identify them to the administration. 

Third, of the boys’ bathrooms that are open, a small number have functional, locking stall doors, despite administrators saying they have put in work orders for their repair. 

On an early December walk around the building, seeking to count the number of toilets for boys with functional stall doors, I found one toilet in the rotunda, one on the second floor, three on the third floor, and two gender neutral bathrooms, for a total of seven usable boys’ toilets for a population of almost 500 boys.

The one auditorium toilet with a stall door and the three toilets with stall doors on the English/cafeteria hallway were locked for the day.  (The latter was still locked one month later, at the time of article’s publication.)

Previous attempts to zip-tie locks shut led students to retaliate by cutting the zip ties.

Students bemoaned the few badly behaved students who have restricted bathroom access for all; they say they are punishing the rest of their peers and denying them their basic rights. 

“It’s not fair to the general population of guys,” said junior Justin Masteralexis. “Ninety-nine percent of the people in there aren’t doing the things that they lock the bathrooms for.” 

“Locking the bathrooms won’t  really do anything,” added senior Josh Vecchio. “How are we supposed to show that we’ve changed our behavior if we can’t even physically get into the bathroom?” 

Outer door removal 

In an attempt to curb vandalism and vaping (and the cutting of zip-tie locked doors) the administration finally removed the outer, swinging entry doors and hinges to second and third floor boys’ bathrooms in late November. 

In a letter to faculty, Principal Gene Jones said that after taking off the outer doors, “almost immediately, the problems ceased.” 

He said that in making the decision, he took “student privacy” into consideration and hoped to increase “student safety as well as overall health [and] hygiene [availability] to the boys.” 

However, Jones said that there was “sizeable opposition from students, staff, and parents” about the door removal’s infringement on privacy, forcing his hand and leading him to put the outer doors back on. 

One ninth grader told The Graphic that while vandalism may have lessened, vaping continued in the third floor bathrooms after the door removal, with students just opting to position themselves deeper inside the bathroom to avoid being seen by passersby; he now opts to use a single all-gender bathroom to avoid vaping students.

In late December, Social studies teacher Chris Gould said he heard a ruckus coming from the open-door third floor boys’ bathroom; he found a number of students vaping and reported them to the Deans.

Dean of Students Mary Custard said the punishment for vaping is contact/conference with parent/guardian after the first offense. “If student is an athlete, the Athletic Director is notified and MIAA rule is applied,” she said. “Subsequent incidents may result in suspension.” She added that school staff  are working on an educational and therapeutic program for students caught vaping. 

A national problem

ARHS is not alone in facing these problems. The Daily Hampshire Gazette featured a story on December 13 about Northampton High School’s similar removal of bathrooms’ outer doors to reduce vaping, which was backed by top administrators.

Northampton Public Schools Superintendent John Provost said,  “We were hearing from many students who felt it wasn’t safe for them to go to the bathroom.” 

Reporter Greta Jochem wrote, “According to the Hampshire County Prevention Needs Assessment Survey — which polled nearly all of the students in eighth, 10th and 12th grade in the county — twice as many students reported past 30-day use of an electronic cigarette, JUUL or vape pen in 2019 compared to those in a similar survey in 2017.”

According to ABC news network, a “prestigious Bronx high school” recently shut down six bathrooms due to students vaping. 

KSBY reported that a Paso Robles, CA  school district had begun locking bathrooms for the same reason. And an Indiana school tried to limit bathroom passes to deter vaping. 

Jones, who has fielded complaints from parents, both about locking the bathrooms and then removing outer doors rather than locking them, said there was not a simple solution to the problem. 

He believes “it’s time for students to be a little more responsible” and that “it’s time to stop” the vandalism and vaping. Jones has even bought paint on his own time and covered graffiti in bathrooms. “We have a very nice facility. Why trash it?” he asked. 

While vaping in girls’ bathrooms is also common, the combination of wider-spread vandalism, vaping, and a greater number of stall-less doors in boys’ restrooms has drawn attention, and ire.

Building inspector

I spoke to the Amherst Building Commissioner, Robert Morra, to discuss  the locking of boys’ bathrooms. 

“Generally all bathrooms would remain open unless the Plumbing Inspector determines that they are not necessary,” Morra said. “This is regulated by the Massachusetts State Plumbing Code.” 

Morra also said fixing inner stalls without doors should be a priority. “Repairs should be completed as necessary in a reasonable timeframe to ensure proper fixture availability,” he said.