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Restroom Project Proves a Source of Pride

Pilot program that posts attendants in bathrooms and upgrades facilities has cut vandalism and boosted school spirit, officials say.

May 10, 2000|JOHNATHON E. BRIGGS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly four months into a pilot program that placed attendants in school bathrooms, students, janitors and principals are declaring the effort a resounding success.

The full-time attendants stationed at 10 South Gate schools since January are credited with producing clean, well-stocked restrooms, reducing vandalism and boosting school pride and safety.

"It is probably the most effective program we've ever done," said Lynn Roberts, director of maintenance and operations for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The pilot program, launched to combat what many students and parents say is the district's most pressing problem, is scheduled to end June 30. But maintenance officials have submitted budget proposals to the Board of Education that would post restroom attendants at middle schools throughout the district.

"'That's where our biggest problem is," Roberts said. "It would be cost-prohibitive to do it at every school."

As part of the district's heightened focus on clean facilities, the proposals also call for hiring 300 new janitors during the next school year and limited district-wide installation of "smart bathrooms" equipped with electronic flush toilets, automatic faucets and hand dryers.

The "smart bathroom" effort would cost about $20 million, Roberts said. About 180 of the district's 5,800 bathrooms have been upgraded so far.

"If we put in quality equipment and work with students, the bathrooms will stay clean," she said.

Juan Alvarado still recalls the graffiti-ridden walls, the stench of urine, the missing stall doors.

Just four months ago, the 13-year-old was so disgusted by bathroom conditions at South Gate Middle School that he often refused to use the facilities.

"I would wait until the end of school and go rushing home," said the 8th-grader.

But thanks to the restroom attendants, Alvarado can enjoy a leisurely stroll home. Janitors are smiling more. And tales of bullies holding students hostage until they cough up their lunch money are on the decline.

Students say the attendants, who cost $17,000 a year, have proven effective.

"She's been putting in toilet paper and cleaning the floors," Bryson Elementary fifth-grader Paval Arauz said of attendant Maria Medina. "It's like a luxury."

Last month, when South Gate High seniors were introduced to their two attendants, they greeted them with a standing ovation.

"We seem to be popular," said Maria Castillo, one of the attendants.

Overcrowding at campuses leaves facilities straining under a high volume of use. And the district has yet to recover from the cuts made in its maintenance budget a decade ago, officials said.

With one attendant assigned to each of South Gate's eight elementary schools, and two assigned to each of the middle and high schools, the attendants have provided welcome relief for understaffed custodial crews.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that with a little extra help, things would be better," said Rigoberto Lopez, plant manager at Bryson Elementary. Bathroom complaints have declined, he said.

Attendants' Presence Deters Graffiti

The attendants maintain a presence by roaming from bathroom to bathroom. "Kids never know when someone is going to pop in," Roberts said, "and that's been very helpful."

As they wipe, mop and stock, the attendants' presence deters graffiti and loitering.

"It's amazing what doesn't happen with an adult around," said Albert Ortiz, a bathroom attendant at South Gate Middle School. When he's not making rounds to restrooms, Ortiz sits outside a renovated boys bathroom in the school's main building, where he makes sure students sign in before entering.

The bathroom has been graffiti-free for four months, now that students must identify themselves before entering, he said.

Initially met with resistance, the sign-in program appears to be catching on. Students from the school's leadership class volunteer for "potty duty" one period each week to help Ortiz and fellow attendant Esperanza Tavera monitor bathroom traffic at the 4,200-student campus, the largest middle school in the country.

"They were all tagged up and there was trash on the floor" said student Jackie Mascorro as she kept a close eye on the girls' restroom. "But now even my mother was like, 'They're finally clean!' It's up to us to keep them that way."

It's a battle. With classes during the day, after school, at night and on Saturdays, use of facilities is nonstop. "We're like Denny's," said Assistant Principal Cheryl Gonzales. "We never close."

Students don't have to sign in at South Gate High, but attendants there document the shapes and curves of any graffiti they find in a log book and pass it on to campus officials, who track down suspects.

South Gate schools also give credit to the bathroom itself. Many of South Gate's aging, high-traffic restrooms were upgraded to "smart bathrooms," making them easier to maintain.

In the new facilities:

* Electronic flush toilets compensate for the forgetful. The handle-less flush valves replace protruding ones that were sometimes kicked off by vandals.

* Graffiti is easier to remove, thanks to a protective coating on new ceramic tiles. Stall doors are made of scratch-resistant materials.

* Toilet paper dispensers are placed high, making them less likely to be torn down.

* Hot-air hand dryers replace paper towels, cutting trash buildup and eliminating raw materials used by fire-starters and drain-cloggers.

It is not uncommon to hear South Gate students refer to the souped-up lavatories as "Restroom 2000" or "Virtual Restroom."

"I feel more comfortable," said Juan Alvarado as he used a hand dryer. "Others schools are really missing out on something."

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