LAWRENCE - Some middle school students here are learning to shun soft drinks, water and other liquids during school hours for fear their consumption will lead to an urgent need to answer nature's call.
Under a new policy at the Lawrence Middle School, the seventh- and eighth-graders are allowed to leave class for the bathroom a maximum of 15 times a month.
As a result, some are afraid to use up their bathroom passes too quickly and end up with a full bladder and nowhere to go.
Some girls feel an even greater need to stockpile their passes so they have them at their disposal when they menstruate, parents say.
The pass system, referred to by some parents as "the pee-pee policy," was instituted last month as a way to monitor the school restrooms and stop students from skipping class.
It is the latest in a series of disciplinary measures implemented by school administrators in response to behavioral problems that have included bomb threats scrawled on a bathroom wall.
School officials defend the policy as a way to ensure safety, security and order.
But some parents say the system goes too far and fosters a negative atmosphere at school. The right to go to the bathroom, they say, is a health and civil rights issue and as taxpayers, they think it is a freedom they pay for.
"When my son Matthew used all his passes, he was then told he couldn't go to the bathroom," said parent Susan Gregory. "We called the school and were told the bathroom is a privilege, not a right. Then we were told if a child has to go to the bathroom more than three times a day, we need (to bring them) a doctor's note.
"This is utterly ridiculous. Now my son doesn't want to go to the bathroom at school. He says he won't drink or he'll hold it until he gets home. This can't be healthy."-- -- --
Studies have not been done about the effects of restricted bathroom access on junior high and high school students, but urologists say the practice can lead to infections and incontinence.
"Common sense tells you the policy doesn't make any sense," said Dr. Christopher S. Cooper, an associate professor of urology at the University of Iowa who specializes in pediatric urology. "When children need to go, they should be allowed to go. It isn't good to hold it in or drink less fluids. It could have long-term effects on a child's health."
Cooper, the leader of a landmark study that looked at the problems tied to limiting bathroom access for children in elementary schools, says between 7 and 15 percent of 7-year-olds have bladder problems. As children age, their bladders develop and they can control them better, but older children can still have trouble that can be exacerbated by limiting bathroom access.
"I see lots of junior high kids every day who have problems with urinary tract infections from not voiding frequently enough," he said. "There is also an epidemic of constipation because kids are not consuming enough fluids."
While Cooper acknowledges teachers need uninterrupted time to teach, and that some students ask for a bathroom pass to skip class, he says a student who sits in class trying to restrain the desire to urinate will be distracted and won't be able to pay attention to the lesson.-- -- --
Middle School Principal Nancy Pitcher thinks the policy offers students ample opportunities to use the bathroom. It was a necessary step to guarantee the safety of her students and encourage learning, she says. The high school already implemented a similar system the previous year.
"We wanted some control of students in terms of who was going in and out of the bathrooms," she said. "The students have 15 opportunities out of 20 to 22 days in the month to use the bathroom pass, and another 15 to go wherever else they need to go. That is quite a few times."
School officials and some parents also say the policy must be understood in the context of recent events.
Two bomb threats were written on school walls in the fall, and one discovered in a boys restroom alluded to a ticking bomb. After each of the incidents, students were evacuated from the school for more than two hours while police scoured the property.
Yvonne Harris Johnson, one of the parents who supports the new system, says administrators are doing everything in their power to combat the bomb scares and control the students.
"I'm happy to know my child is safe. That's my No. 1 concern," she said. "Maybe they can come up with a better solution, but they had to crack down. They don't know who has been making the threats, so they all have to suffer until the problem is solved."
Since the policy was instituted, Pitcher said the number of bathroom incidents has dropped dramatically. The restroom doors are locked between classes, but she said students can use the bathrooms during gym and lunch.
"We did not invent this system in a vacuum," she said. "During the summer we discussed ways to make the school better and created a student-management program that has immediate consequences for kids. We use parent and student input to develop policies. It is a work in progress.
"Of course some kids are upset because kids don't want rules. Some parents don't understand because they are only getting bits and pieces of the story."
But some parents don't buy any of the school's arguments. They say students are pressed for time at lunch and usually feel the need to use the restroom later in the day, especially if they drank something with their meals. If students have gym at the beginning or end of the day, parents say it doesn't help much. Gym is every other day and some students are enrolled in health instead.
And while sympathizing with the principal's predicament over security and order, they are still perplexed by the pass limit. "There must be some better way to monitor the bathrooms," said parent Kristal Waldron. "And why should the behavior of a small group of children hurt the entire school?"
"My daughter won't drink anything at school to keep from having to go to the bathroom so she can save up her pass for when she has her period," added one mother who asked that her name not be used. Girls can go to the school nurse when they are menstruating in order to get permission for more restroom trips, but are often too embarrassed, parents say.
What further irks some parents is the $1 fee their children must pay to buy a new pass if they lose one. The fee goes into a student activity fund.
"I'm a taxpayer," Susan Gregory said. "Why should I pay extra for my son to use the bathroom when I already pay?"-- -- --
Students in some other states have successfully sued school districts for limiting bathroom access. In 2002, the family of a seventh-grader at Ponce de Leon Middle School filed a lawsuit against her math teacher and the Miami-Dade County Public Schools when the teacher refused to give her a bathroom pass.
The student said the teacher told her "If you can't hold it, you should be wearing Pampers." The student had a bowel movement in class and was then too embarrassed to go back to school.
Her lawyer sought damages for humiliation, and the district settled with the family out of court.
Laurie A. Couture, a child psychologist and children's advocate in Exeter, N.H., wants to see such bathroom restrictions eliminated. She says the restrictions are nothing short of child abuse and should therefore be reported to state authorities.
If schools have extreme disciplinary problems, Couture suggests putting bathrooms in every classroom or paying for hall monitors. The use of the toilet at any age is a fundamental human right, she says, and limiting its use not only has physical consequences, but psychological ones.
"The forced retention of body waste not only carries serious health risks (but) children also learn unhealthy attitudes about health and the human body when their basic needs are not provided for," she says.
"No adult would tolerate such treatment by another adult, and no adult would expect themselves to be able to concentrate on tasks while concentrating on retaining bodily waste."-- -- --
Some parents say they will not continue to tolerate the new system. They have started a petition drive to protest the bathroom policy and other disciplinary measures and students have begun circulating a petition of their own. Some parents are threatening to picket the school or take the district to court if the practice continues.
Asked about the issue, Superintendent of Schools Max Riley said it is inappropriate for him or the school board members to get involved. He added that he is confident administrators and parents will be able to meet and work things out.
"I really think the decisions must be made by the principal, teachers and parents at the site," he said. "They are the people who live at the school on a day-by-day basis."
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