Elimination of bodily waste is a basic survival necessity, along with breathing, eating, drinking, sleeping and maintaining a proper temperature. It seems obvious enough, but venture into most public and private schools in America as a fly on the wall and you will find that this basic human need is typically treated as an inconvenience to classroom order, as a reward that a young person must earn, as something that can be rationed or denied, or that a young person can be deprived of as punishment. Parents send their children off to school assuming that their basic needs will be met. After all, isn't the school acting in locus parentis? It's reasonable to assume that the majority of parents would never suspect that their children aren't allowed to use the toilet when the need arises. After all, parents are busy. They are occupied with their daily routine, and believe - or want to believe - that teachers “don‘t still do those things nowadays.” Furthermore, it's a safe assumption that most children who are denied toilet use never mention it to their parents. Not only is elimination a culturally taboo subject, it is something that children past the age of three learn to feel embarrassed about- especially at the prospect of not being able to “hold it”. Teachers know for these reasons that children are captive victims. And those children who have cold and insensitive parents are the most likely to be victimized in school.
Whenever campaigns for child protection or improving education are mentioned, nowhere is it mentioned that children who are sitting in class with uncomfortable bladders and bowels are not doing any learning. Experts are silent on the fact that denying elimination places children at risk for physical and emotional health problems.
Talk to most people - adult or child alike- and most can tell you a painful story of having to retain waste at school, of sitting there in fear they’d have an accident, watching other kids have accidents, or even having one themselves. Yet, despite this near universal experience, nothing has been done to abolish this practice in schools. And it occurs not only in schools. Some of the most horrendous stories I have encountered involved parents using waste retention as a form of punishment or torture. Since every human being can relate to being preoccupied with finding a toilet when the need arises, why are people in positions of power over children so insensitive and downright cruel regarding this basic need? Children’s bladders and bowels are smaller, and individual children have different rates for digestion and waste production. Why should they be expected to conform to a rigid schedule?
I decided to raise public awareness of this issue when I realized through my work as a preschool teacher, social worker, mental health counselor and political child advocate that the inhumane practices in school that I personally experienced and witnessed when I was in school are still occurring regularly and with little recourse. Over the past ten years I have visited over 50 schools in New England and have spoken with 100’s of teachers. I have spoken with and worked with 1000’s of kids. In every part of the country, as well as other countries, this practice is as commonplace as spanking, more overlooked than spanking, and just as detrimental and harmful to children as spanking. It is time that parents start taking action by letting their children’s teachers know that this is not acceptable. If their school will not provide for their child’s basic physical needs, then parents must take action. They must use their state department of child protective services, their local media, and, as a last resort, class action lawsuits.
There was a learning disabled, very troubled boy in my 5th grade class who was banished to his seat until he completed his day’s work. He kept telling the teacher he needed to use the toilet badly, but she adamantly refused to allow him to go to the toilet “until his work was finished”. The child was showing signs of distress, and finally, after another refusal, he bolted from the classroom, across the hall, into the boy’s bathroom. Right behind him, however, bolted the female teacher, right into the boy‘s bathroom. A bunch of us got up and watched at the door- we were all routing for the boy as if betting money on a dog race. Much to my shock and horror, and I’m sure unimaginable to the boy himself, within seconds the teacher was dragging the boy out of the boy’s bathroom by the back of his ragged, gray t-shirt. His pants were unzipped and lowered, exposing his underwear. He hadn’t had a second's chance to relieve himself. She dragged him back to the room, shoved him towards his seat and said in a low voice, “I said you’re not going!” I remember staring at him, in shock, later, as the bell rang to signal the end of school, and he was still sitting in that seat looking more dissociated and vacant than a mannequin. I wondered if he had wet his pants finally, but I never asked him. The memory has haunted me for years.
I have seen children as young as four in preschool being denied the toilet after drinking a cupful of juice at snack time because it was recess time- not the prescribed time to go to the toilet. I have seen kids as old as 19 in high school being forced like hostages to sit in classrooms in sheer pain, denied the right to leave the classroom to use the toilet under the threat of punishment. This happens to children of all ages, in all grades, for a variety of adult-convenience or adult power and control-related reasons.
Four years after my graduation, when my sister was in high school, the local high school was rumored to be toying with the prospect of locking the restrooms during class hours, allowing only the nurse’s office toilet and the locker room bathrooms (by the lunch room) to remain open. One of my first acts of public advocacy was to draw up a petition that stated that if the bathrooms were locked, this matter would be brought to the attention of the local media, as well as to the local department of child protective services. My sister and her friends gathered 100’s of signatures from students in the school, and my own friends and I gathered signatures from adults and parents in the community. My sister told me that the few “cool teachers” in the school who had an open bathroom pass policy told her that while they supported the petition, they feared for their jobs if they signed. After well over 500 signatures were collected, my sister asked to speak to the school principal to present the petition, and her request was denied. Instead, I sent the petition certified mail to the local school board, asserting that if the school bathrooms were locked, I was poised and ready to go to the media, with whom I had already began a dialogue about a potential story. The school board never responded to my petition. However, just as quietly as the idea arose, the idea to close the bathrooms never happened that year, or, to my knowledge, any year since.
School has only been in session for one week now in most parts of the country, and already the letters are coming in to my Web site from parents concerned about the toilet use policy at their children’s schools. It was well known that one particular teacher at the aforementioned high school was notorious for punishing students with four nights detention for even asking to use the toilet. Do children and adolescents deserve this abuse of their basic human rights? Adults in every setting, from college students to employees to prisoners, are legally protected from this inhumane practice. Why shouldn’t toilet use be regarded a necessity and a human right for children?
The author remembers When I was in elementary school we were rarely allowed to use the toilet at recess. In fact, one of my most haunting experiences in school was of a time in 5th grade when, on a briskly cold day, I had to urinate badly right before recess. The teacher had a policy that we could NOT use the bathroom before recess, or as we were coming inside for recess. We were required to wait until the work period began. Once the work period began (it took about 15 minutes for her to give instructions), she would then circulate a bathroom pass to each table (the only bathroom break of the morning). It could take up to an hour by the time the last child recived the pass. That day I was so desperate, I first thought of trying to sneak into the bathroom as we were coming in from recess. Unfortunatly, the teacher was standing outside the classroom, shooting down that plan. As the work period began, I eagerly volunteered to be the first to conference with her about my book report so that after the conference, I could "casually" request, "would it be ok if I start the bathroom pass at my table today?" I remember that I was literally shaking and sweating as I tried to get through the book report conference, because I had to urinate so badly. I remember praying that my plan worked. Thankfully, after the conference, the teacher, seeming preoccupied with her paper, granted my request. I took the pass, walked out of the room and then I ran to the toilet. But 24 years later, I am still haunted by the thought of WHAT IF she had said NO? What would I have done? Risk bolting out of the room without a pass and have her come in after me and drag me back into the room (as she did to the boy in my class)? Wet myself and risk unbelieveable shame and humiliation? BEG her- someone who was well known for denying bathroom breaks? No child should ever have to suffer this type of fearful situation.
Letter from a teacher
To Laurie A. Couture,
I am horrified at what I am reading. If I weren't a retired teacher and know what I know, I would believe that this is all made up. Unfortunately, it is not. I know the stories of my teaching career.
It is possible to maintain control over the classroom, prevent students abusing restroom breaks and see that their basic needs are met. I didn't allow squirming in my room or accidents. I sent students to the restroom. The secret is to separate restroom abuse from restroom needs. Teachers who make up a bunch of arbitrary rules are setting themselves up for misery. I simply didn't refuse students, period. If there was evidence of abuse I counseled that student privately and worked out something that worked for that student. I had no accidents. I made it clear that there would never be a time when I expected a student to have any kind of accident or be in pain. My students respected and appreciated the respect that I gave them. They rewarded me by not abusing restroom breaks.
Teachers make the horrible mistake of making restroom needs a discipline problem. Bad mistake. It makes life miserable for the teacher and the student. Now for my problem: I am researching information. The local high school has a new policy outlawing any hall passes during class. This is even true for illnesses. Children must wait until the class change to see the nurse. Of course there is not ample time to take care of all needs in four minutes. It is common place for girls to go home regularly during their periods to change clothes.
I plan to challenge this stupid rule, but I need all the information I can get. Send me by e-mail the information or the websites. I need more than just the synopsis. I plan to win on this. It is ridiculous for a teenage student to be in sight of a restroom and be required to wet his pants. Period. For a person to stand over another and deliberately allow an accident is child abuse, pure and simple. It must be stopped. We can't even treat prisoners of war that way.
I have a spinal cord injury. I know the horrible effects of an overstretched bladder. I don't want this to happen to students. My urology specialist and spinal cord physicians are on my side on this. As you can see, I am very upset about this. If I hadn't taught school and know that it is possible to allow students access to the restroom and maintain order, I wouldn't be as upset. I actually had fewer requests than some of the other teachers. I didn't allow this to be a control issue. My students knew from day one how I felt. They respected me and I respected them. Respect says it all. Now when I see former students anywhere they come up and hug this old man. I was loved because I loved the students. Teachers are treated by their students the way they treat the students. The only criticism I received from my principal was that I loved the students too much. If I had it to do over, I would love them even more. Humiliation is a sin in my book. Teachers reap what they sow. Today I am blessed by hundreds of students who rush up to see me whenever they see me. I am proud of my record as a teacher.
Thanks for your help.
Visit Laurie A. Couture's Web site, www.childadvocate.org.
Email her at Childadvocacy@hotmail.com.
See related materials:
- Health Risks to Children Associated With Forced Retention of Bodily Waste - A statement by health care professionals
- University of Iowa Study: Elementary Schools Need A Lesson In Bathroom Breaks, by Christopher Cooper, M.D.
- The Medical Risks Of Forced Retention of Urine, by Laurie A. Couture, M.Ed., 2003
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- Letters from Parents About Denial of Toilet Usage in their Child’s School
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- Forced Retention of Bodily Waste: The Most Overlooked Form of Child Maltreatment by Laurie A. Couture, 2001
- Using the Bathroom Is Your Right, Not a Privilege! By Laurie A. Couture
- Letter to the New York Times Re: "Teacher in Urination Flap", by Laurie A. Couture, February 11, 2000
- IMAGE: First graders, Wesley School, Houston, Texas: "One of the school's special aspects is its regimented bathroom break every morning," Contra Costa Times, February 11, 2001.
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