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Lifting the lid off dirty loos

The cleanliness of toilets, in fact, is also a reflection of the school community, which many people overlook. -The Star/ANN

Tue, Jul 20, 2010
The Star/Asia News Network

THE stench was unbearable and he was about to throw up, but there was no choice, Wai Sen* plugged his nose and quickly made his way through the slippery floor to answer nature's call.

Lifting the lid off dirty loos
Click on thumbnails below to view. Story continues after photos.
(Photos: The Star/ANN)

The sharp stench of urine and faeces was enough to force the primary school boy to hurry things up.

"I always try to get my 'business' done as fast as I can because it is just too stinky in the toilet," says the 10-year-old boy.

For eight-year-old Gloria*, any thought of lingering in the school toilet longer than necessary is revolting.

"There are only two basins in the washroom and one is clogged because somebody vomitted in it recently, so we cannot even wash our hands," she laments.

As if that isn't bad enough, Gloria even found an empty fast food container in the toilet bowl. One just has to bring up the subject of dirty school toilets and chances are adults and children alike would have lots to say about them.

School toilets are where students can relieve themselves without having to wade through pockets of water or taking in the smells of urine, faeces and even vomit.

The cleanliness of toilets, in fact, is also a reflection of the school community, which many people overlook.

The current education system is so focused on our students achieving A's, that it tends to overlook other basic issues that are just as important like personal hygiene and toilet etiquette.

Based on the feedback StarEducation has gathered from school authorities, parents and students, there's still much to do to improve the appalling conditions of toilets in certain schools.

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A common complaint by students is that the school toilets always stink, no matter how often the janitor cleans them.

"The cleaning lady comes and cleans the toilets in the morning and before you know it, the toilets are dirty again after the recess," Wai Sen says.

Other complaints include broken door locks, clogged sinks, lack of hand wash liquid or soaps and graffiti on the walls.

"The toilets are always 'flooded' because others don't turn the taps off after using them. They just let the water run and they tend to overflow," she says.

Unfortunately, sometimes, students' complaints of dirty school toilets fall on deaf ears.

"I am not happy because my classmates and I have complained to my teacher many times about the dirty toilets but she never seems to take our complaint seriously," says Wai Sen.

The cleanliness issue is hardly unique to schools in Malaysia alone. In 2004, the UK government launched a national campaign to "improve standards and put an end to the smelly, dirty facilities that often act as a hang out for bullies and smokers".

According to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), about 84% of pupils thought their restrooms "were not cleaned adequately".

While in Japan, the Yokohama board of education for the first time in 30 years decided to give the chore of cleaning the lavatories to students, in response to the increasing cases of vandalism and damage to property.

It was said to be a move seeking to "instil a collective public spirit" that would take effect at all of the city's 500 public elementary, junior high and high schools earlier this year.

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Bring your own

Toilet rolls seem to be a rare commodity in government school toilets.

It was evident that only a few schools provided toilet paper from our random check of school toilets in the Klang Valley.

In fact, during a recent visit to some schools, this writer was appalled to see some teachers wiping their wet hands on their skirts!

If adults do not practise basic hygiene habits, how can we expect children to learn?

Gloria, who comes from a middle-class family, brings several packets of tissue paper and a bottle of hand sanitiser.

She claims that this is because "there are no toilet rolls and the cleaning lady doesn't refill the liquid soap regularly".

"I make sure she has them in her school bag and I teach her how to use them so that she is clean and protected from bacteria and infection," says Gloria's mother, Sally*.

The mother of three says items such as soaps and toilet rolls should be made available to students in school toilets.

"As a mother, I am horrified at the thought that the children don't wipe and clean after their 'big' or 'small' job.

"Tissue paper and soap are basics that should be provided in any toilet. I cannot understand why schools don't provide them," she laments.

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A retired principal who wants to be known as Tan says that his former school provided students with tissue rolls and even sanitary napkins, but students had to get them either at the administration office or counselling room.

"If you put the rolls in the toilets, chances are they would drop on the wet floor and get soiled," he says.

Secondary school teacher Sara* says the lack of toilet rolls is not an issue as many students bring their own tissue papers from home or just buy them at the school canteen.

Based on the recent pictures of school toilets submitted to StarEducation by students of several schools who wanted to remain anonymous, the conditions of the toilets were nowhere near squeaky clean.

Besides, they are also dimly lit, old, and could do with a fresh coat of paint. There are even foul words scribbled on the mirrors.

Before pointing our fingers at the school authorities for not maintaining the cleanliness of the restrooms, we should perhaps look at the underlying causes for the shameful state of school toilets.

The primary reason could be when students lack the sense of belonging for the school, says Tan.

"When students don't have a connection with the school, they think that it's not their responsibility to maintain the cleanliness of the school, and in this case, it is the school toilets," he says.

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Tan, who has 40 years of experience in teaching, says school authorities have to instil a sense of pride and involvement amongst its students.

"I used to send my students a card on their birthdays to make them understand that the teachers and I cared about them. After all, the school was their second home because they would spend eight hours a day in school," he says.

Sara, who is also a counsellor, says other reasons for the sorry state of school toilets could be the lack of consideration for others.

"Many families have maids these days. So some children think it's 'okay' and 'acceptable' not to flush the toilets because they know, at the end of the day, someone will clean up after them," she says, adding that vandalism is another serious issue in some schools.

"Even if the school provides students with the facilities, there are some who still damage or abuse school property because they take things for granted and are unaappreciative," says Sara.

As toilets or restrooms are meant to be private, monitoring and enforcement is all the more difficult when identifying the culprits.

"But we have to point out their irresponsible actions with announcements and reminders at the school assembly or students will think that their behaviour is acceptable," the counsellor says.

Meanwhile, Shanthini* who used to attend a girls' school in Petaling Jaya says she never had any problems with her school toilets.

"They were quite clean because we had prefects rostered to check the toilets," she said.

Primary school teacher Johan* says it would be unfair to blame the pupils solely for the dirty school toilets.

"Sometimes, the problem is due to water pressure. When there are more students using the toilets especially during recess, the water tank doesn't fill up fast enough for the pupils to flush the toilets," he says.

Schools are aware of such situations and usually provide pails that pupils can fill up with water in each cubicle. But the pails with water could prove to be a potential breeding ground for the Aedes mosquitoes, he says.

Not child-friendly

Cleanliness aside, parents and school children also have plenty to say about the design of the toilets.

Just ask Gloria, who refuses to use her school toilet, even in an "emergency".

Gloria had a very bad bout of stomach ache during lessons recently.

Instead of rushing to the toilet, she quickly called her mother to come and pick her up from school.

She insisted on going home, no matter what.

Her reason: "The toilet is very dirty, and I am used to the sitting one (commode) so my legs can get a little shaky when I squat too long. I cannot balance myself well," she says.

Sally says students, especially the younger ones, should be given a choice to either use the sitting toilets or the squatting ones.

"The design and size of average toilet bowls are not child-friendly. Can you imagine a tiny Year One child trying to use the adult-size toilet and worrying about falling in at the same time?" she says.

Secondary school student Natalie*, 14, says there is nothing wrong with the design and location of her schools toilets. However, she wants her school toilet to have an adequate supply of toilet rolls, soap and, more importantly, air fresheners, which she says will certainly make anyone's toilet "experience'' a less smelly one. "Is that too much to hope for?" she asks.

*Names have been changed.

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