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Arlington teachers blast decision to remove outside locks from staff bathrooms

Men’s restroom sign at Sequoia Plaza (staff photo)

A controversial decision by Arlington Public Schools to change staff bathrooms so they do not lock from the outside has incited backlash from a number of teachers.

APS is embarking on a “lock and key” project to maintain the safety and security of buildings and “improve the key inventory process” at its 42 school buildings, per an email sent from Washington-Liberty High School Principal Antonio Hall to staff, shared with ARLnow.

As part of that work, single-occupancy staff bathrooms would be changed to only lock from the inside, granting access to students and staff who previously could not use these facilities.

Bathrooms within classrooms and clinics would have no locking mechanism at all, and for these facilities, “it is encouraged that signage be created if desired,” per an FAQ document prepared for staff, also shared with ARLnow.

The changes will “ensure all staff including maintenance, bus drivers, etc. have access without access to a key. In addition, this conversion ensures that all students have access to a single use bathroom regardless of the reason,” the document said.

Staff were informed of these changes on Wednesday and told they would be happening over spring break, which starts after school lets out today (Friday), teachers say. APS was not able to return a request for comment before deadline.

Teachers, some of whom shared comments to ARLnow under the condition of anonymity, say they feel disrespected by administrators. They are also frustrated that administrators made the decision without consulting any of the three teacher committees, according to Josh Folb, a leader within the teachers union Arlington Education Association.

The teachers who spoke to ARLnow said a number of staff restrooms have already been converted into single-use restrooms accessible to all students, prompting concerns that this will give students another place to use drugs.

Here is what one high school teacher had to say:

It is dumbfounding that less than two months after the death of a student due to overdose and countless more incidents of drug usage and risk assessments, the school district [is] determined to apply an overwhelming mandate that increases student risk (not safety) without any input, thought of execution, within a minimal timeline, and what would be assumed as an astronomical cost. All of this on top of the fact that it would now wholly remove any location for teachers to access a private restroom consistently during the already limited time that we do have.

My imagination runs wild at this notion considering we find new Instagram accounts every year created by students where pictures of teachers are unknowingly taken and posted on social media. This move would allow students to do so with literally our pants down.

A Washington-Liberty High School teacher with 25 years of experience told the School Board in a letter, shared with ARLnow, that he was “surprised and dismayed” by the decision.

“The currently shared single-use restrooms are already busy, and teachers have limited time for access, mainly between classes,” he said. “This decision represents a major change in my working conditions and environment… As a professional, do I also have reasonable access to a single-use restroom without having to use a group restroom with high school boys?”

During a speech to the School Board last night, Folb said the safe and orderly operation of the schools depends on teachers having a private place to respond to nature’s call and students not having a lockable space to consume drugs.

“Have we learned nothing?” he asked.

In late January, a 14-year-old student fatally overdosed in a Wakefield High School bathroom. Teachers who knew him and his friends told ARLnow that they had been pulled from bathrooms with drugs before. The comments from teachers for this story indicate this is not limited to Wakefield.

Other school systems, meanwhile, are closing bathrooms entirely or keeping doors open in response to rising drug use.

Potomac Local News reported in February that one Stafford County high school would institute rolling bathroom closures to curb student vaping.

Montgomery County Public Schools is stepping up bathroom safety checks and keeping the outermost doors to bathrooms open after five students died from overdoses in January.

Beyond streamlining the number of keys teachers have, there are a few potential reasons for these changes.

Nearly two years ago, a bus driver told the School Board that they were “not allowed to use the bathrooms” at several schools because they were locked.

Students, meanwhile, may feel more comfortable in single-occupancy bathrooms, if they are gender non-conforming or if they wish to avoid encounters with drug use.

There’s some recent indication from teachers that, in response to the backlash, the planned overhaul is being scaled down to just making certain lock changes and mostly leaving the single-occupancy bathrooms alone, at least for now. Some worry this pause is just temporary.

Should the changes go through, another teacher compared the bathroom-related working conditions to those of gas station attendants. The teacher wished Superintendent Francisco Durán would do more to understand the daily routine of teachers.

“I’d love to see Dr. Durán spend a day in our shoes, running around in between classes, fighting students for the bathroom — students we all know are just using the lockable room to get high before their next class,” the teacher said.

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