Dear Pioneer Administrators, Please Stop Downplaying the Problems with Our Bathrooms

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Dear Pioneer Administrators, Please Stop Downplaying the Problems with Our Bathrooms

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The following open letter to the Pioneer administration won first place in this year’s Journalism category in the Pioneer Writing Awards.

Imagine this purely hypothetical scenario: It’s your first day of high school. You’ve worried about everything that could possibly be of concern — getting lost or trampled in the hallways, not liking your classes, etc. But it hadn’t struck you that your biggest area of concern wouldn’t be the academics or the sheer number of students, but rather the bathrooms. You discover that several stall doors are missing locks and that one stall is out of toilet paper (yes, even on the first day). But hey, that’s not too bad, right?

Except it gets worse, and worse, and worse. By the second week of school, toilets are going out of order. They don’t get fixed for weeks, sometimes longer (one toilet has been out of commission since that second week of school, which was over five months ago now). Sometimes, the bathroom lines are so long that you’re late to your next class.

Why are Pioneer’s bathrooms so bad? Well, in 2014, the Ann Arbor Public Schools decided to outsource its janitorial services — meaning that instead of the district hiring its own janitors, it hired the national company GCA Services to take care of all its bathroom needs. This switch was estimated to save AAPS over $2 million every year.

But this decision caused multiple problems. Not only did it cost nearly 120 local janitors their jobs and condone the use of companies that pay their employees an average of $9.25 an hour (less than Michigan’s minimum wage), but it made our school horribly unclean. The issues with cleanliness occur because GCA Services is managed by a few executives for a much larger number of staff, and these executives, who are supposed to process requests and things they need to change from AAPS, understandably often have other things to focus on. There’s also a major language barrier, because many of the janitors come from other countries. When people at Pioneer ask them to do something differently, they can’t understand, because they literally speak a different language. Finally, the employment turnover rate of the janitors at Pioneer is very high. Janitors who work at Pioneer for a short time naturally feel less of a connection to the school and therefore feel less obliged to keep it clean.

Students soon noticed the severity of this situation, and in December, Pioneer’s Student Council took action. It put out a petition to fix the bathrooms and talked to administrators, and the administrators seemed responsive. For a moment, I felt hope, because maybe I wouldn’t have to go to the bathroom in practical squalor every day until I graduated.

But then on Jan. 9, I saw the email sent out to Pioneer families by Tracey Lowder, Pioneer’s principal. Part of it read like this:

“While I will always appreciate your support of all things Pioneer, I am concerned about the amount of misinformation that has been circulating recently, so this email is to try to provide some clarity on a few issues.

As with anything that is as old as this building, there are things that need to be addressed.  We definitely have some things that need to be fixed or repaired, and our district facilities department has a list of short-term and long-term plans to address the needs of this building.  Yes, the bathrooms need some attention, but the stories about feces on the toilets, and all of the doors being busted on the stalls are simply not true. Admittedly, we have had some custodial issues and making sure that every bathroom is stocked with proper supplies has been a challenge at times, but we have also gone into bathrooms to find two and three rolls of tissue dumped into the toilets. We obviously don’t want students to have to deal with unsanitary restrooms, but we also don’t expect them to go in and trash them either. We are working with our custodial service to make things better for our students and staff….

“I have walked this entire building with a focus on the bathroom areas and other high priority areas. In the past three weeks, several repairs have been completed on restrooms at Pioneer and additional repairs are currently in progress. This building requires significant ongoing upkeep and maintenance, and the district is trying to do that in an efficient manner.”

Reading this email infuriated me. It described the stories about the disgusting conditions of Pioneer’s bathrooms as being “simply not true” — but that’s simply wrong. I’ll explain what I mean sentence-by-sentence.

“All of the doors being busted on the stalls”? If by “busted,” you mean “missing,” then yes, I’d agree — I haven’t seen any stalls at Pioneer that are missing doors. However, I’ve also never heard a student claim that all of Pioneer’s stalls are missing doors, which leads me to believe that by “busted,” you simply mean “broken.” And that’s where this so-called “misinformation” has more truth than you suggested in the email. A great number of Pioneer’s bathroom stalls do have broken or missing locks. Obviously, not 100% of them do, but I’d venture that more than half do.

But don’t just take it from me: here are two reviews that Pioneer students left on Niche, the popular school-reviewing site:

“Warning, expect a broken or slightly messed up bathroom stall per bathroom.” -Freshman, 2018

“[One of] the only negative things I would say about Pioneer is that the bathrooms aren’t always very well-maintained.” -Senior, 2019

The fact that Pioneer students posted these on a popular and reputable website should be all the proof you need that we’re not just telling “stories.”

The reports of “feces on the toilets” aren’t made up, either. At least once a week, I walk into the bathrooms and see such a sight, or something similarly disgusting. I certainly wish this weren’t true — but I promise you it is.

How about, “We have…gone into bathrooms to find two and three rolls of tissue dumped into the toilets”? Personally, I’ve never seen this happen, but I know others who have and I don’t dispute it. But I assure you that the vast majority of Pioneer students aren’t interested in vandalizing the bathrooms and further decreasing our already dwindling toilet paper supply. Downplaying the problem is bad enough, but then accusing us students of “trashing” the bathrooms? That’s simply not the case. Let me tell you, our bathrooms aren’t chronically out of toilet paper because someone dropped a couple of rolls in a toilet. They’re out of toilet paper because the people who are supposed to stock them don’t do so.

I realize that Ann Arbor Public Schools officials control the district’s janitorial services and that Pioneer administrators might not have a huge say in it. I understand that fixing the bathrooms would be costly and difficult, and that the building is old. I know that you’re making some repairs and fixes already. And I thank you for that. I also know that there are more pressing problems than our school’s disgusting bathrooms. And I think that the problem of the bathrooms doesn’t discount the many ways in which our school is excellent. But that’s why I’m not writing this specifically to complain about the bathroom conditions — I’m writing this because I’m upset about the way you responded to student concerns in the email you sent, essentially dismissing them as lies.

It’s one thing to have gross bathrooms at your high school. But it’s another to be told you’re telling stories when you speak up about it.

As a student, I’m frustrated and concerned about the way that you responded in this email. You can handle the matter of the disgusting bathrooms how you like. But when people complain about it, you should listen to them and consider making changes accordingly. I feel like my voice — and the voices of every other student — should matter at my school. But the email you sent out truly made me question that.