There has been a lot of talk in the news lately about transgender students and school bathrooms. Although I don't know anything about the transgender issue, I know something about school bathrooms and I can declare unequivocally, "They are not safe!"
School bathrooms exist somewhere between Lord of the Flies and The Killing Fields. They are a no man's land where even teachers don't tread. If you want to catch someone to beat the crap out of them, the school bathroom is the perfect place to do it. It's certainly not where you want to go if you're the slightest bit different.
And it's not just school bullies who make the bathroom experience perilous. I recall everything about school bathrooms being traumatic, especially in middle school, when I started to physically develop, being one of the first girls in my class to start my menstrual period. That was on top of being the only black child of educated parents in our building, and being the only black girl in my class. In short, I was a target, and the bathroom was not a safe place for me.
Our bathroom was small, only three or four stalls, with most of the stall doors ripped off. Administrators didn't bother keeping the room in good repair because, as one of the maintenance men complained, the girls would swing on the doors and tear them off again. Some of the girls went to the restroom in pairs so they could take turns holding up their coats as makeshift doors. If you didn't have a friend, you had to wait for the one stall that had a door to become available. If you were the isolated kid, you waited for the room to clear out totally and you hoped that happened before the bell rang for class to begin.
With only 5 minutes between classes, there was barely enough time to get from one classroom to the next, much less stop by the girls' room. If you did take time to stop, you were certain to be late for class, and back in those days, teachers could inflict corporal punishment at their discretion.
I recall one incident in sixth grade when I had to stop at the bathroom because I was menstruating and needed to freshen up. There was a line for the stall that had a door and by the time my turn rolled around, the tardy bell rang. When I got to class, I was stopped at the door by a teacher holding a paddle. I was appalled. I was a well-behaved honor student, and now I was faced with punishment for trying to get myself cleaned up? My mind rallied against the injustice of the situation. To my way of thinking, it was inappropriate for a young lady in my stage of development to be getting whacked on the backside because I had to change a sanitary napkin.
That day was one of the few times I dared defy an adult. I told the paddle-wielding teacher she could call my mother for explanation (I wasn't yet brave enough to say the word 'period' in public) but she could not paddle me. The teacher demanded that I submit, but I stood there like a prisoner of war resisting a sadistic captor, insisting over and over that she call my mother. She eventually backed down, angrily threatening that another time things would not turn out so well for me.
I don't know if Ms. Paddle Whack ever got around to calling my mother, but I reported the incident at home that evening, and my mom tried to help me work out a system that would let me bypass the bathroom trauma in the future. None existed because, let's face it, if you need to pee or poop or change a sanitary napkin, you need ample time and a safe place to do it. And a school setting doesn't fulfill either of those criteria.
So when it comes to transgender students, my heart goes out to you. Using the bathroom can't be easy. On top of the possibility of failing building infrastructure, you have to worry about who awaits you there, not to mention the bullies who can show up and trap you once you're inside. And even if all goes well with the bathroom visit itself, there is the menace that awaits you back in the classroom. It's a tough trip all around, and there is no way to avoid the trap because when you have to go, you have to go, making it the perfect setup for a bully.
The only remedy is to make the bathroom experience safer for every student in the school. Put in place some commonsense remedies such as video monitors or adult supervisors to deter violence in these intimate spaces. Or create single user bathrooms with doors that lock from the inside and declare the space to be "occupied."
These ideas would no doubt have to pass through the narrow halls of "We can't do that; it will cost a squillion dollars." But when all the money whining is done, if we could make these changes, schools would be a little more humane for everyone involved.
Hal Hutchison, M.Ed.
Hal Wofford Hutchison, M.Ed., is a former columnist, writer and editor for the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette newspapers. She has also been a secondary educator, and a university counselor and administrator. She lives in Little Rock, Ark., with her husband of 23 years and their daughter.