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White: Are University bathrooms outdated?

Should more be done to protect students at their most vulnerable?
Image by Mary Ellen Ritter

From Sept. 9–23 there have been three separate incidents of indecent conduct in campus bathrooms. Given the frequency of these occurrences, is there more that should be done to protect students from such horrific invasions of privacy?

Flimsy, cheap partitions make up the stalls of most public bathrooms around campus and around the country. These partitions leave large gaps at the bottom and cracks around the door. It can be difficult to get comfortable enough to do your business with a window for a peeping-tom so readily available.

In the two most recent cases of indecent conduct, these partitions were exploited by perpetrators attempting to catch a glimpse or even take a photo of a student — one who deserves to have their privacy better protected.

These below-par partitions should not be the norm, not for the average restroom and definitely not for the University of Minnesota. The one-person bathroom you can find at the average gas station with one toilet, one sink and one lockable door does a better job of protecting the user’s right to privacy than the barriers we are expected to defecate behind while on campus.

The issue lies directly in the structure of the bathroom. Change must occur, but it will be met by many barriers.

One barrier to change will be building code and regulation. A large regulatory factor in the restroom is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

This was made clear by Hans-Christian Karlberg, an adjunct instructor in architecture at the University who will soon open his own practice.

“The point of this ADA aspects in these sheet partitions is to maximize space,” Karlberg said. “So you need a nine-inch clearance between floor and the partition so that someone in the wheelchair can have that foot sticking out, ease of maneuverability.”

So, the structure of these partitions and a lot of their lapses in privacy protection come from these accessibility regulations. Therefore, we must keep accessibility in mind when we try to improve privacy.

So, why not just make the bathrooms bigger? Then you could meet both accessibility and privacy requirements.

“When you’re laying out a bathroom, you’re looking at squeezing the space, so that you can maximize other, more important spaces, like corridors and other facilities,” Karlberg said.

Karlberg’s point raises yet another complication. How can we make the bathroom a more comfortable place without compromising the area around it? Does the function of other areas even matter when the sanctity of the bathroom is compromised?

In the American Institute of Architects statement of values, they say they work to “advance our nation’s quality of life and protect the public’s health, safety and welfare, as it has done for 160 years.”

When it comes to safety and welfare, it is easy to see that, in the average public bathroom, these standards are not being met.

Amendments to these regulations must be found, but we should be wary of over-correction.
“So, when we find solutions for these issues, there will be a caveat whereby solutions might change spaces that become then like fortified prisons,” Karlberg said. “We don’t want the adverse effects of solutions. It needs to be holistic.”

In solving the issue of the public bathroom, regulation and structure must be addressed in a way that maintains the comfort, security and accessibility of the bathroom. This will not have an easy solution, but what we have now simply isn’t cutting it.

The University will have a long road ahead of them in determining the best course of action. After all, they have many aspects and people to consider.

“There are so many stakeholders at place, you know, issues at place,” Karlberg said. “ I’m sure you know, the police department will have their advice as well.”

“There are measures in place already in these buildings to create the safest possible environment,” Jake Ricker, the University’s public relations director, said in an email to the Minnesota Daily.

If this is considered as safe as possible, that says a lot about the imagination of our campus security.

Ricker also referenced President Joan Gabel’s finance request that would increase police presence on campus. If granted, the request would also improve lighting, cameras, building access and other security features around campus.

“Don’t let strangers into buildings, don’t prop doors open and please report suspicious behavior immediately,” Ricker said when asked how people on campus could help.

While this is sound advice, and it is good to hear building security is getting a facelift, does it do much to amend the issue? Will more police on campus really have an impact on the issues faced in maintaining student privacy, or will it further infringe upon it?

An increase in police presence isn’t going to do much to stop a crime that occurs in a bathroom unless there are police inside that bathroom. The problem at hand is one fundamental to the design of campus bathrooms. University police can bring in as many officers and put up as many lights as they please, but the problem is in the partition.

The University and the people in charge of protecting it have a problem in front of them they have yet to fully address. Something more must be done to protect the rights of students, faculty and any other human being who happens to use a public toilet on campus.

As it stands now, they are failing to do so. How many more acts of indecent conduct is it going to take?

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  • Nah
    Oct 2, 2022 at 10:49 pm

    Oh my god no one cares