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Schools Throw in the Towel on Getting Kids to Shower

September 25, 1996|NANCY WRIDE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Let's say you are the type of student in high school who loves physical education. It's your favorite class. You run to P.E.

Despite this making you a minority on the planet Teenville, you also love the uniforms. Love running around the track, vaulting hurdles, swimming laps, sweating through . . . ahhh, there. There's that one thing about P.E. you probably hate, like every teenager before and after you: the dreaded communal shower in the locker room.

Some things about P.E. never change. But as the 1996 fall semester unfolds in Orange County, it is clear one thing has: Few students shower at school now.

Not after P.E. Not after a two-hour round of competitive basketball. Not after a stinky, sweaty football game.

"I can't remember the last time I saw a kid take a shower," says Dan Miller, veteran athletic director at Anaheim High School, which more than 2,000 students attend.

A few years ago, Anaheim's football coach, Allen Carter, made the team shower. Miller entered the locker room and heard gushing water. He was alarmed. What was going on? Did he have a plumbing leak on his hands?

"I remember being shocked," Miller adds, laughing, "to actually find kids there." //

There is no code governing school showers, according to the California Department of Education. But the prevailing view among public educators is that it's no longer appropriate to require students to take showers. Teachers are more sensitive to charges of harassment. Students are more likely to claim--and be granted--a right to some privacy.

In December 1994, a Pennsylvania school district dropped its showering requirement after the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue on behalf of a teenage girl. The ACLU argued that a student's right to privacy is violated if he or she is forced to be naked before classmates.

And then there's the matter of towels.

Schools gradually stopped providing them and their laundering as they looked for ways to save money after Proposition 13 led to reduced property tax revenue for schools. Students cannot be charged separately for them because the state bans public schools from levying fees connected with required courses. Teachers say it makes it harder to insist on showers when as many as 2,000 kids would need to be responsible for bringing towels to and from school all week because they can't leave wet ones in their lockers.

P.E instructors and coaches say they still preach the virtues of hygiene and encourage showering. But given the choice, a majority of students don't.

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This new reality has emerged around the country, according to the National Assn. for Sport and Physical Education, which comprises teachers and coaches.

Brent Ellis, a sophomore at Westminster High School, is goalie for the varsity water polo team. He and his teammates are exceptions. They actually shower.

But not in the nude.

"All the guys I know shower in swimsuits," says Ellis, who is tanned and seems confident. "I have never seen anyone shower at school in the nude. I have two friends who are not on the team who just don't shower. P.E. is their last class of the day.

"My dad said [that] at his gym, nobody wears anything in the shower, and I was like, 'What?! That's weird.' "

So seldom are the showers used in some middle school student locker rooms that campus furniture is stored there. Occasionally, the showers don't work. If they do work, there may not always be hot water available.

Budgets are so tight that a few schools figure it's wasteful to repair plumbing or hot water tanks for showers that are rarely used.

Bonnie Mohnsen, who oversees physical education programs for the Orange County Board of Education, says that as the number of students showering trickled down, many schools began doing away with towel service. That towels are no longer provided as they were a generation ago is a pet peeve of Katella High School Athletic Director Tom Danley, who thinks youths would be inclined to shower if they didn't have to bring towels to school. But towel laundry and replacement are luxuries at many campuses.

"We just had all our drains routed, so yes, the showers work and there is hot water in both the locker room for P.E. and the one for the athletic teams," says Kim Jeffers, varsity softball coach and girls athletic director at Anaheim High School. "But we also don't have towels for them. I think it's more of an issue of modesty, though."

At Costa Mesa High School, showering after P.E. is strictly voluntary for the 1,800 students in grades 7 through 12, says Principal Andy Hernandez, adding, however, that the school offers students bonus points for showering to encourage it.

"Showers went out of vogue a few years back when the state decided we could no longer charge kids for the towel fee," Hernandez adds, referring to a laundering charge. "At that point, most schools [unofficially] ended mandatory showers."

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