Cleaning & Maintenance Management Online

Attitudes can help clean school restrooms

September 19, 2010

Facility management of public schools traditionally has three phases: Design, construction and maintenance.

Most schools go through the first step with architects and engineers; the second with builders and code enforcers; and the third with district and building in-house facility directors, custodians and maintenance and repair staff.

Yet this traditional approach does not seem to effectively handle the use and abuse seen in public school restrooms — acknowledged by almost everyone as the most difficult area to clean and maintain.

A more comprehensive approach should be considered — one that not only cleans and maintains restrooms but also addresses the attitudes and behaviors of those who use the restrooms and the attitudes of those who clean and maintain those same restrooms.

A fair trade
No doubt, in-house facility managers and directors already feel they face enough issues. Budget crunches, program cutbacks, cost increases, disgruntled employees, upgraded performance standards, and mandates for environmentally sensitive cleaning products all weigh on their minds.

And, every manager recognizes that newer is not necessarily better, green is not always great, and the attitude of the cleaner is more important than the angle of the mop.

But what facility manager or director wouldn''t trade a change in attitudes and behaviors for an easier path to cleaning and maintaining school restrooms?

Project CLEAN (Citizens, Learners and Educators Against Neglect) is an effort to help improve the safety, cleanliness and hygiene of student restrooms in public schools.

This school-by-school project deals with students'' attitudes and behaviors, as well as with increasing the involvement of administrators, teachers, facility directors and custodial staff.

Five-step communication process
We have all heard this familiar administrative refrain: "Messy bathrooms have been around for years, not just here, but everywhere". 

And the facility staff in most of today''s schools knows there''s a problem.

"Every time we clean it up, take down the graffiti, fill the soap dispensers — it''s just as bad the next day," custodians and facility managers often say.

Project CLEAN, which has contracted with 41 schools in six states to date, has developed a way to improve the attitudes and behaviors of students, which in turn, has helped district facility managers and school staff change their attitudes while still getting the job at hand done.

The five-step communication process includes:

  1. Gaining the principal''s trust.
  2. Investigating restrooms periodically.
  3. Guiding students and adults to make suggestions and find solutions (rather than dwell on problems).
  4. Writing a restroom improvement plan.
  5. Using Project CLEAN as a resource for future improvements.

The effect of this approach is to sharpen the awareness of restroom issues for facility managers and to provide suggestions and solutions that are tailored to particular schools.

Facility managers are introduced to a broader way of thinking about restrooms than just design, construction and maintenance.

Five interlocking circles become the mind-set with two critical dimensions added, "user standards" and "evaluation".

Thus, the five phases of facility management of public schools become design, construction, maintenance and cleaning, user standards and evaluation.

With this change in approach, facility managers begin to think about how to address and improve students'' attitudes and behaviors, as well as how to effectively monitor and evaluate this unique private/public space and facilitate effective custodial cleaning and maintenance efforts.

Ultimately, students can change their attitudes and behaviors and gain respect for themselves, others and restroom property such as dispensers, sinks, toilets, trash cans and wall surfaces.

Setting standards
The ultimate goal of user standards is to have students "buy in" to the process.

Nationally, an average of 43 out of every 100 middle and high school students avoid restrooms and an effort should be made to reach out to them for solutions.

They should be made to feel they are part of the solution and not just the problem.

Thus, it is important that user standards are part of a school''s code of conduct.

The DeKalb County (GA) School System Code of Conduct includes a succinct expectation that could serve for any school system:

"All offenses enumerated in this Student Code of Conduct apply to student behavior in school restrooms and locker rooms. Students are expected to help keep restrooms safe and clean. Also, students are expected to report disruptive, unsafe/or unclean conditions in restrooms to an administrator or other staff members." 

In setting user standards, school administrators and in-house facility directors should consider:

  • Including restroom-user standards in the school system''s code of conduct.
  • Getting students to see themselves as citizens, not just monitored building occupants, which will in turn encourage users to become allies with the cleaners.
  • Showing students the result of negative actions and encouraging more positive behavior.

Evaluating progress and problems
The evaluation process is an important addition to facility management of public schools. It is more than just compiling a list of existing hardware and a list of maintenance and cleaning requirements.

In-house facility directors should:

  • Look at what has been done in the initial construction or renovation of school restrooms.
  • Determine if anything was omitted or if anything should be added.
  • Document what is working.
  • Determine what is not working.
  • Formulate a plan for necessary adjustments and improvements.

Winning them over

How specifically can a facility manager begin to engage students? How can district and building staff change youngsters, while eliciting more support from staff in schools?

First and foremost, supervisors should begin the process by changing their own attitudes as they must first realize that there is a need to find suggestions and solutions.

In addition, in-house facility managers should be open to improvement, keep notes on each issue, take periodic photographs of good and bad conditions, and follow through on requests and work orders.

Then, facility directors can work to change the attitudes and behaviors of their custodial staff.

In-house facility directors and custodial staff should:

  • Use the "Four Senses" inspection technique that utilizes sound, smell, touch and sight. In short, custodial staff should care enough to know the condition of the restrooms they service. They should never just walk into a restroom, head down and swab the toilets and leave.
  • Be adults who are caring enough to be willing to listen to students'' concerns.
  • Enlist students as allies in the cleaning and maintenance process.
  • Avoid taking an adversarial approach when problems arise. Custodial staff should not see every child as a problem.
  • Not wait for complaints, but be proactive and aware of issues before they develop into trouble areas.

Getting students involved
This change in approach and attitude by administration, in-house facility directors and custodial staff paves the way for creating positive change in attitudes and behaviors of students.

Administrators and facility directors can work to change those attitudes and behaviors of students by:

  • Getting students to see themselves as school citizens with a sense of ownership and pride in their school restrooms.
  • Encourage classroom discussion of the issue of restroom use and abuse.
  • Provide message boards that provide an alternative out let for those who would otherwise resort to graffiti.
  • Arrange for school clubs, organizations and teams to clean, paint and decorate restrooms under adult supervision, helping to foster additional student ownership and pride.
  • Allow interested students to take part in the cleaning and maintenance process by writing up work orders.

Moving forward
Once the attitudes and behaviors of administration, facility directors, staff and students have been addressed, it becomes important to keep the momentum going forward.

Facility managers and custodial staff can facilitate this by keeping restrooms properly stocked and well-maintained. This in turn avoids giving the appearance of neglect.

Also, cleaning and maintenance staff should keep a close watch on potential areas of major concern.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Keep cost data on vandalism and then set up incentives to decrease these negative expenditures.
  • Evaluate existing restroom conditions to show students the result of negative actions and encourage more positive behavior.
  • Retrofit and improve restrooms and consider renovating plumbing.
  • Install or reinstall stall doors for privacy.
  • Provide hygienic disposal receptacles for girls (if they don''t exist in older schools).

The need to rethink
In short, we have built them, but some of the students have not come to use the restrooms, or worse, have taken them over.

Or, school districts have built them, and then not cleaned and maintained them to foster wellness.

Facility managers oversee so much, including this unique and important space. Consider rethinking your approach, working to change the attitudes of students and the attitudes of your cleaning and maintenance staff.


Tom Keating is the coordinator and founder of Project CLEAN, a national project that has worked to improve public school restrooms for the past 10 years. Keating has served 35 years as a teacher, college instructor, governmental liaison, school board member and self-employed educator. He teams with cleaning consultant Perry S. Shimanoff to present hands-on workshops on cleaning and maintenance and other operations-related services to school districts. Keating can be reached at www.project-clean.com; projectclean@mindspring.com.