A first-floor bathroom entrance at Robert V. Connors Elementary School prevents anyone from seeing into the bathroom from the hallway. Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover

LEWISTON — A couple of weeks ago, Nathan Lyons was in the hall at Lewiston High School when he saw a female teacher stop by the boys’ bathroom and talk to a teenager inside.

The bathroom door had recently been chained open by school staff concerned about trouble behind closed doors. From her spot just outside the doorway, the teacher couldn’t see inside the closed stall or the urinals around the corner, but she could see into a good portion of the bathroom, including the boy paused in the middle of it.

“She asked the kid what he was doing in there. He was like, ‘I’m just using the bathroom. Is there something wrong with that?'” Lyons said. “She stayed there for a little bit and then she walked away.”

The encounter so unnerved Lyons, a 16-year-old sophomore, that he told his friends about it. They were already uncomfortable using the open-door bathroom and this situation didn’t make them feel any better.

“Nobody’s happy,” said Lyons, who has started a petition to close the restroom door.

School bathrooms have been troublesome for generations. Students want privacy to change clothes, use the toilet or compose themselves. Adults want to keep kids from smoking, vaping, bullying each other or doing anything else they shouldn’t be doing.

In Maine, every school balances bathroom privacy and safety differently. Some allow closed doors but have a staff member check the restroom frequently. Some maintain individual or classroom-attached bathrooms that are less attractive to mischief-makers. Some have group bathrooms with open doorways but put up partitions or walls to block someone from seeing directly in, similar to airport bathrooms.

Some, like Lewiston High School, have kept doors wedged open. But after students continually removed the door stopper — and sometimes used it to wedge the door closed from the inside — the school resorted to a chain and padlock.

“If students are using the facilities appropriately,” said Lewiston High School Principal Jake Langlais. “You can’t see anything that’s private.”

BEHIND CLOSED DOORS

Traditionally, students have had more privacy in school bathrooms than virtually anywhere else on campus. Some students have taken advantage of that.

A generation ago, smoking was one of the biggest problems in school bathrooms. Today it’s students’ use of electronic cigarettes, also known as vaping.

Vape pens can be more easily concealed than a smoking cigarette.

“It’s not your traditional smoke or tobacco smell,” said Matthew Gilbert, principal of Rumford’s Mountain Valley High School, which has no entryway doors on its bathrooms but does have privacy partitions to block stalls from view. “A lot of times, substances kids are using have a fruity smell or a sweet smell and you wouldn’t typically identify that with anything happening in a bathroom that shouldn’t be happening. So we do have to be a little more vigilant.”

Then there are other problems, like fighting, bullying and vandalism.

“Behind closed doors there’s that possibility,” said Steven Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Management Association. “At the same time, there is that level of concern for privacy.”

Schools, he said, try to balance bathroom privacy and safety each in their own way. An elementary school might make a different decision than a high school, for example, or a school with a significant vaping problem might do something different from a school where vaping isn’t an issue.

“I’ve gone to as many bathrooms where the doors are either taken off or open as I have in terms of, ‘OK, here’s a bathroom that I have to push the door open to get in,'” Bailey said. “It varies depending on circumstance.”

In recent years, school builders have tried to reduce potential problems by creating bathrooms that have no front doors but do have walls or corners that people have to walk around to access sinks, stalls or urinals.

“It’s just like walking into the airport (bathroom),” Bailey said. “There’s not a door at the airport going into the bathroom, men’s or women’s.”

While that kind of bathroom doesn’t let school staff easily see in from the hallway, it does let them hear if a student is calling for help or smell smoke if someone has lit a cigarette.

Auburn’s new Edward Little High School will have those obstructed bathrooms when it’s built in a few years, according to the superintendent. It will also provide single-stall bathrooms — with doors — for individuals.

The new 888-student Robert V. Connors Elementary School in Lewiston has been built with a pair of multi-stall bathrooms that have an open entryway but require people to turn a corner to access the sinks and stalls and require two turns to see the urinals. The school also has a unique bathroom solution: about 80 individual restrooms, almost all of them inside or next to a classroom.

Each classroom at Robert V. Connors Elementary School has its own bathroom. Doors to the bathroom are on the inside of the classroom for younger grades and on the outside of the classroom for the older grades. Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover

The individual bathrooms were slightly more expensive to build and will be more expensive to maintain than group bathrooms, but Superintendent Bill Webster believes the cost is worth it.

“We are envisioning greatly reducing any of the behavioral issues that come around the bathroom situation,” he said.

‘YOU’VE GOT TO KNOW YOUR SCHOOL’

Older schools don’t have the option of creating 80 individual bathrooms. Some can’t create walls or carve out corners for group bathrooms, either.

Their choice comes down to doors or no doors.

Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School’s 1,100 students have doors on all of their bathrooms.

“Obviously, administration, staff, we step in the bathrooms all the time because I think that’s what you need to do,” said Principal Ted Moccia. “It’s not because you’re trying to intrude on someone’s privacy. You want to make sure kids are safe.”

Moccia said his school hasn’t had many issues with its bathrooms, so it made sense to allow closed doors and monitor the restrooms with periodic check-ins.

“Our kids are appropriate,” Moccia said. “They’re great kids. They make good decisions. I think it’s about respecting them and they respect our facilities.”

He said the school could re-evaluate its bathroom policy if a problem developed, but it would take something “pretty drastic” for the school to change.

“I think the privacy issue and kids being willing to use facilities here in your building, I never want to lose that,” Moccia said. “I think that’s a pretty big standard for us.”

However, he’s quick to emphasize that he speaks only for Oxford Hills and doesn’t judge other administrators for making different decisions.

“You’ve got to know your school. You have to know your kids and your culture,” he said. “I think when you know, that helps you set the parameters for what’s appropriate and what’s not.”

Lewiston High School has 1,500 students and 10 general bathrooms, plus restrooms attached to locker rooms. A few bathrooms are locked, monitored by teachers who have keys.

“If kids are sitting in class and they want to do something with their phones and teachers say no phones, they’ll ask to go to the bathroom so they can do their thing with their phones,” said Langlais, the principal. “So more and more teachers are actually asking for permission to just take a break in class and bring the class (to the bathroom).”

Jake Langlais, principal of Lewiston High School, shows the lock and chain holding a bathroom door open. Langlais says open bathroom doors decrease incidents of bullying, smoking and other acts. Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn

The main bathrooms are not locked but do have open entryways. The largest two are in the front lobby and have a wall that prevents anyone from seeing inside. A smaller pair of bathrooms is in the Lewiston Regional Technical Center wing and their doors are propped open at all times except for cleaning.

And then there are the two bathrooms next to the gym.

The door to that girls’ bathroom is closed. The door to the boys’ bathroom has historically been kept open with a door stopper, but students kept removing it, sometimes wedging the stopper under the closed door from the inside so no one could get in.

The school began keeping the door open with a chain. When students pulled that off a couple of weeks ago, staff got a new one. The door is now secured with a chain looped around the handle and anchored to the wall, a padlock locking it in place.

From the hallway, the open doorway gives a clear view of the sinks and much of a stall, which does have a door. The urinals are off to the side and can’t be seen without going into the bathroom.

Langlais said the open door is necessary.

Some students say it makes them uncomfortable.

“To be honest, I just think it’s kind of weird,” said Kelen Painter, a 16-year-old junior.

He doesn’t like that passers-by can see in, a common occurrence since the bathroom is in a main hallway. He also doesn’t like that adult hall monitors tend to stand or sit in the area, adding to his sense of unease.

“Most of the time they’re usually staring into the boys’ bathroom and just looking,” he said.

Lyons, the sophomore, said he grew particularly uncomfortable a couple of weeks ago when he saw a female teacher talk to a male student who was in the bathroom. To Lyons, it felt like the teacher crossed a line.

Nathan Lyons and his father, Rob Lyons, stand outside Lewiston High School. Nate has started a petition to allow the bathroom doors to close. Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn

“It’s pretty frustrating,” he said.

He said he and others used to change clothes in that bathroom to use the gym after school. Locker rooms weren’t always open and other bathrooms were far away. They could change in the bathroom’s stall, but there’s just the one — which is a problem if multiple students want to use it.

Lyons said students complained to teachers about the open door. Teachers weren’t sympathetic.

“They usually say, like, ‘You shouldn’t have done bad stuff in there,'” Lyons said.

Lyons iscirculating a petition asking school leaders to reconsider the open-door policy. He’s gotten 30 signatures in a week.

Lyons’ father, Rob Lyons, said he’s seen the boys’ bathroom in question and doesn’t have a problem with the door being open — particularly if it will help stop vaping. However, he doesn’t think it’s right that the boys’ bathroom is open while the girls’ bathroom next door is closed.

“I would like the bathroom door situation to be fair,” he said. “If the school is going to chain open the boys’ bathroom then, I believe, they should also chain open the girls’ bathroom.”

He said he’s less concerned about his own son than he is other boys.

“Nate is not shy by any means, so I’m really not worried about him,” he said. “I am worried, though, for the shy young man who just has to use the restroom but might feel anxious because anyone walking by can see him or a female faculty member is ‘supervising.’ Of all places at the high school, I would think students should feel a sense of privacy while using the restroom, regardless of their gender.”

Langlais said the next-door girls’ bathroom has a closed door because that restroom’s different angles and mirrors meant passers-by could see things they shouldn’t. Elsewhere, the girls’ bathrooms are opened wherever the boys’ bathrooms are.

As far as changing goes, Langlais said students are told not to use that bathroom to change, regardless of the door. Cleats and other gear can damage the school’s floors.

“We want them to use locker rooms,” he said.

While Lyons said the locker rooms aren’t always open after school, Langlais said there is always a coach or supervisor on duty with keys to unlock them.

He said he has heard no complaints about the open bathroom, either from parents or students.

Lyons said he’d like to get at least 100 signatures on his petition before giving it to the principal.

In the meantime, some students have found a work-around.

“Usually, now, I pretty much just go to the main lobby,” Painter said. “There is no door on that one, but there’s also no door on the female one, either. You can’t really look in that one and see much. You can’t see as much. You just look at a wall if you’re walking by and happen to look in.”


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