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Bathrooms are now some of the most dangerous places in Montgomery schools

Montgomery County students say the safety issues in school bathrooms have led them to avoid using them. (iStock)
5 min

Since Montgomery County’s school year began, students have found shooting threats written on bathroom walls, Percocet residue beside toilets and swastikas drawn in stalls. Students have been caught vaping, fighting, vandalizing equipment and taking drugs in bathrooms.

The bathroom has become one of the least safe places on campus, students in the county say. Some parents say their children now avoid the bathroom altogether, choosing instead to wait until they’re home.

“The kids have figured out that the bathrooms are kind of a place where they can do things where they otherwise wouldn’t do, because that’s where the least adult supervision is,” said Ricky Ribeiro, whose two children and a nephew under his care are enrolled in the Maryland school district.

In January, two Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School students were found drunk and unconscious in a bathroom during first period, according to the school’s student newspaper, The Tattler. Three Richard Montgomery High School students were charged with robbery in January after they robbed several Gaithersburg High School students in a bathroom. Last school year, a student was shot in a bathroom at Magruder High School in Rockville.

School bathrooms have typically been hot spots for student misbehavior, said Kenneth S. Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services. Students have always used hall passes to stay out of class or smoke in the bathroom. But schools are more worried now as restrooms have become common sites for bullying and violence.

School districts across the country combating similar problems have started restricting bathroom use. In Virginia, administrators closed some restrooms during the school day at North Stafford High School because of a vaping problem. Texas districts have installed vape sensors to monitor air quality and catch vaping students. Last school year, several schools closed bathrooms because of a TikTok trend that encouraged students to vandalize and steal paper towel dispensers and fire alarms. Last week, a Texas superintendent resigned after a third-grader found his gun in a school bathroom.

Ribeiro said he was displeased last year when his son at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring would frequently tell him that the bathrooms smelled like vape and marijuana. His concern deepened this year after reports of students who overdosed in the school bathrooms. He’s spoken about the problems at a school board meeting, advocating for a systemic approach to the problem similar to the athletic safety plan that was announced after a brawl at a high school football game earlier in the school year.

“I don’t blame them for this happening obviously, because obviously, MCPS is not in control of the individual behavior of students,” Ribeiro, 39, said of the county’s school system. “But I am frustrated that there doesn’t seem to be a systemwide response to the behaviors, particularly as they’ve multiplied in scope and severity.”

The school system — which is Maryland’s largest with roughly 160,600 students — announced a more detailed safety plan Friday, divided into immediate, short-term and long-term actions. In its immediate plans, the system will add more security staff, form a “Safety and Security and Student Well-being Advisory Group,” and host community sessions about ongoing safety issues.

“While this is not the first time there have been concerns around inappropriate behavior, the increase in incidents in our community has escalated the urgency of these issues,” schools spokeswoman Jessica Baxter said ahead of the announcement.

Already, some county schools now lock certain bathrooms during the day. Aanika Arjumand, a 16-year-old junior at Gaithersburg High School, said she often travels from the first floor of her high school to the third floor to find an unlocked restroom. The girls’ bathrooms that usually are locked, she said, are the ones that have menstrual product dispensers.

“It’s really unfair to a lot of the girls who generally just want to use a space for how it’s intended to be used,” Arjumand said.

Students often struggle to find and use an open restroom during the 5-minute passing period, Arjumand said. Instead, they’ll ask for a bathroom pass in class, but that’s caused a new problem — some students have been taking and keeping class-designated passes so they can use the bathroom whenever they want.

At Julius West Middle School in Rockville, administrators have taken a different approach. Students carry around a paper that teachers have to sign when the student goes to the restroom, said Marc Eckstein, who has two children enrolled at the middle school. Students get a new form each quarter that monitors how often they go to the restroom, he said, and there is a cap on how many times they can use it to leave class for the bathroom each quarter.

Eckstein believes an open restroom design in Montgomery schools would resolve some of the issues. In that setup, toilet stalls are private with floor-to-ceiling doors and walls, but the hand-washing area is open and completely within view of the hallways. There are no urinals and the space is open to all genders. The design is similar to the restrooms adopted at Saint Paul Public Schools in Minnesota.

“It’s constantly monitored and more of a deterrent because it’s not going to be the congregating space anymore,” Eckstein said.

Administrators say they regularly check bathrooms throughout the school buildings, Baxter said. The school system is also putting safety latches that would keep external bathroom doors open throughout the day in all secondary schools and using more staff members to monitor restrooms. Some schools have started putting QR codes in bathrooms for students to anonymously report problems that occur there.