Something needs to change: locking of student bathrooms, installation of vape detectors causing more harm than good
UPDATE: Since the publishing of this article, bathrooms have been re-opened. Bathrooms are only locked, if at all, for short periods and to address student vandalism or vaping.
Principal Talib Sadiq sent out an email to parents on January 6, 2023, letting them know about new and refreshed policies at ARHS. He wrote, “Phones [will be] away during class, students will be marked absent if they’re out of class for more than 20 minutes, [and students will] need to sign out if they leave the building for any reason without a teacher.” He also clarified expectations around bathroom use and informed parents that vape detectors had been installed in two bathrooms.
Sadiq wrote, “When vape or any other smoke is detected, an alert is sent to specific adults who then go to those bathrooms to investigate. To be clear, the vape detectors do not have cameras in them and visual privacy in the bathroom is not changing.”
Sadiq also said what would happen when high school staff suspected a particular student or students had set off the alarm. He wrote, “If we suspect a student was vaping or using other drugs, or if more than one student is in a single bathroom stall, we will search their bags and ask them to empty their pockets.”
While I understand the concern with vaping and crowds in the bathroom, I personally think the current solution is doing much more harm than good.
First of all, I believe that, in the long run, students will end up leaving school to vape if they know that certain bathrooms are being monitored with vape detectors and or hall monitors are constantly going in and out of bathrooms.
Secondly, focusing on vaping has already had negative consequences for students who simply want to access the bathrooms to use the bathroom. This is because in addition to installing vape detectors, staff have constantly begun locking bathrooms, restricting student access.
Now, the only bathrooms available are the ones with vape detectors in them–one pair (girls and boys) by the rotunda and one pair (girls and boys) on the second floor. That’s only four bathrooms open for almost 1,000 students.
Multistall bathrooms by the auditorium (main hallway), tech wing and English hallway, and third floor have all been locked. Single, locking, all-gender, accessible restrooms have also been either locked to students when multi-stall bathrooms are locked or they are now being occupied by students fleeing the other bathrooms, making them more difficult for transgender or disabled students who rely on these bathrooms to access them.
As a result, there have been way bigger crowds in the two sets of open bathrooms, people all waiting for a stall to open up. I personally have been in situations where I have waited quite a while just to get into a stall.
According to school nurse Robbin Suprenant, bathroom use has more than doubled in the nurse’s office, and there is now often a line of students there only to use the bathroom, saying they cannot access bathrooms anywhere else in school.
Something has got to give.
Another concern I have is about who will be searched or punished and what are our expectations of privacy. With bathrooms so packed, what happens if the vape detector goes off and there are a lot of people in the bathroom? How will administrators decide who gets searched and sent off to the deans?
Recently an ARHS senior walked into the boys’ bathroom when the detector went off, notifying the hall monitors. When the monitors got there everyone was yelled at to go to the dean. There were no questions asked; the whole group had to go. This student was told if he was sent to the dean again, there was a chance of being written up or even suspended.
Another student reported to me that a hall monitor looked through a crack in the stall to see if he was vaping, which seems like an invasion of privacy.
Being searched was briefly touched upon in the principal’s email. What is not clear is whether hall monitors themselves will be checking students’ pockets or bags, or someone else will be doing so.
Mass.gov states that “authorized school personnel must have more than a hunch or a whim to believe a student has contraband” before searching them. Additionally, the Supreme Court wrote in New Jersey versus T.L.O. “reasonable suspicion” is “a common sense conclusion about human behavior upon which practical people … are entitled to rely.” According to this ruling, an eyewitness to drug use or possession may provide the school with reasonable grounds to search. However, “anonymous tips” or seeing someone “standing alone” usually “do not provide reasonable suspicion.”
Will it be up to the monitors to decide whether or not they have reasonable suspicion to believe a student has been vaping or using drugs? Sometimes it may be obvious, but what happens when it’s not? What if someone takes the blame for something they didn’t do? Even if they aren’t blamed, some students will still lose valuable class time waiting in the dean’s office.
Last but not least, I am concerned about innocent students being required to pay for vandalism to a vape detector. The last bit of Sadiq’s email to adults said, “If a vape detector is damaged or destroyed, we will review the camera footage from outside of that bathroom. Unless the one or two people directly responsible for the damage can be identified, all of the students in the bathroom at that time will be held responsible for paying for that detector to be repaired or replaced.”
How are they going to force students who are simply waiting for the bathroom to pay for a damaged vape detector?
From what I’ve gathered, the type of detector we have in the school ranges from $1,000 to $1,400, which is a steep price to ask students who didn’t break it to pay.
Interestingly enough, the email that was sent to parents was not sent to students, which means there is no way for many students to even know about these potential consequences, which I think is unfair. I don’t think that it’s appropriate to tell the adults alone in hopes that they will share with their kids, rather than being transparent with communication.
While I do agree that too many people were using the bathrooms to vape, and I do believe that hall monitors have the overall goal of reducing crowds in the bathroom, I don’t believe that closing the bathrooms is the best way to go about things.
Instead, I think that having more hall monitors is the right idea, but there should also be clear guidelines about what hall monitors can and can’t do. Maybe students should be required to sign in and out of bathrooms.
One thing I am sure of: the bathrooms should stay open. Until they are, there should be a way for students to formally report problems gaining access to the bathrooms during the school day. The problems of a few do not justify taking away bathroom access for all.