WASHINGTON – Children are facing a danger in schools, but it’s not guns or drugs. It’s soap.
At several schools around the state, administrators are taking soap out of school lavatories because they say students have destroyed soap dispensers or staged soap fights, making a mess and leaving floors dangerously slippery.
“Some of the older kids, they’ll shove it in the toilet and try to make bubbles and put in it in the drain,” said Rose Valley Elementary School Principal Michele Powell-Larkin.
Her Fort Washington school dealt with the problem by removing soap from bathrooms for older students. She said the school does provide soap, and the students “usually take it in with them,” in addition to the small bottles of antibacterial soap that students are often asked to donate for classroom use.
Different administrators at different schools give different reasons for the absence of soap. Common complaints include that children vandalize the dispensers or smear soap on walls and floors, not only leaving messes that are a hassle for custodians to clean but creating a situation that could result in injuries.
It is happening even though school health officials say hand washing is the single most effective technique for preventing the spread of diseases among students. But the state does not require soap in school bathrooms, said Bill Reinhard, spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education.
“It really is a local issue,” Reinhard said. “So some systems . . . may not have it. They all have running water.”
To curb germs at Poolesville Elementary School, adult volunteers at the Montgomery County school line up second-graders after recess and squirt Purell, a waterless sanitizer, onto their hands to ensure they are clean for lunch.
Fallston Middle School grappled with the slippery soap problem by constructing sinks in alcoves outside of bathrooms, so that children have to wash their hands in sight of adults, said Don Morrison, spokesman for Harford County Public Schools.
But some Harford schools lack soap because of distribution problems and possible vandalism, Morrison said.
“We have kids that play pranks and empty the soap dispensers,” he said.
Prince George’s County Board of Education member Abby Crowley said she was not aware of any one reason why some schools do not provide soap. But she said parents know about the lack of soap and have raised concerns to her via e-mail.
“Absolutely I think there should be soap, (and) something to dry their hands with,” Crowley said. “I don’t know if it’s a budget issue. I don’t know if it’s something kids are doing to the soap. I know there’s some issue of liquid versus bar.”
Patrick Logan, director of planned operations for Prince George’s County schools, said there is not a soap supply problem. A variety of soaps and paper towels are available for schools, he said.
“They’re definitely not running out,” Logan said. “We provide three kinds of soap for schools — powdered soap, bar soap and liquid soap, depending on what kind of dispensers they have.
“I have heard that some schools don’t put soap in the bathrooms,” he said. “I’ve never ran out of soap.”
At Poolesville Elementary, PTA President Melanie Dahler said the need for soap should outweigh the supposed danger that school administrators see. She said there is an element to the administrators’ reasoning that “I still don’t get.”
“If we did it right, why can’t they?” Dahler said. “We (should) tell a kid, ‘OK, there’s soap on the floor. Get a paper towel or get a custodian.'”