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Should teachers be allowed to limit students' bathroom use?

Parents, school nurses, and teachers are debating whether it is unhealthy to withhold bathroom privileges from students.
/ Source: TODAY

Recent news stories are sparking discussions among parents, teachers, and doctors about school bathroom pass policies and begging the question: Is it abusive to withhold bathroom privileges from children?

This week, the mother of an 8-year-old Los Angeles elementary school student claimed her son was forced to wear trash bags to cover his urine-soaked clothes after his teacher refused to grant him permission to use the bathroom in November.

According to NBC News, Sonia Mongol said her son was forced to urinate into the classroom trash can after asking his teacher repeatedly to use the restroom, and when his clothes became wet in the process, he did not receive help from the school nurse. Mongol said she was not alerted by the school that the incident took place.

"No child deserves to be treated this way," Mongol said during a news conference Thursday.

Though Mongol's claims sound extreme, a recent survey of school nurses by the Society for Women's Health Research shows that around the country, bathroom policies vary widely and often without regard to or education on bladder health, as reported last month by The Atlantic.

While half of the 362 school nurses surveyed for the report said students in their schools had free access to bathrooms, with formal permission a formality, others had varied responses. At some schools, students are expected to use the restrooms only in between classes or during their designated lunch times.

However, according to the survey, more than a third of the middle and high school nurses said they do not believe the break period between classes is long enough for students to use the bathroom, and parents and teachers told TODAY Parents they agree.

"My 7th grader attends an overcrowded junior high and has to carry a 20-pound backpack to all her classes, so there’s no time to go to the bathroom between classes," said Houston, Texas, mother Candy Mejia.

Mejia is particularly concerned because at her daughter's school — like others across the country — bathroom passes can be used as academic currency that can lead to unhealthy attitudes and habits for children who care about getting good grades.

"She is given bathroom passes every nine weeks, but if she saves them, she can use them as extra credit points to get a higher grade," explained Mejia.

"My daughter is a high-achieving student and would rather skip a trip to the bathroom in order to get the highest grade possible. I’ve told her it’s not good for her body to skip the bathroom when she needs it, but try telling that to a kid obsessed with perfect grades," she said.

Though teachers have valid fears that some students might abuse bathroom passes to misbehave or waste class time, the majority of school nurses in the survey acknowledged that students at their schools struggle with bladder or bowel control problems. Forty-two percent of them also said they were "aware of current concerns from teachers, parents/guardians, or students about student bathroom access."

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Lansing, Michigan, high school teacher Laura Sifferman — herself the mother of children ages 10, 8, and 4 — told TODAY Parents that although she knows some students abuse bathroom passes, she always lets her 9th and 11th grade students go to the bathroom when they ask her for permission.

Sifferman said she will ask her students if it's an emergency if the class is in the middle of an important activity. "They are usually like, 'Oh, yeah, I can wait until we're done with this lesson or that activity,'" she said. "And if it is an emergency, they tell me, 'Actually, I should go now, but I'll be back quickly,' and I always let them go."

Her school, like others, currently grapples with the problem of students leaving class to vape or buy "vape hits" in the bathrooms, and Sifferman said she "definitely had my fair share of kids just trying to get out of class," so she understands the desire to limit hall passes.

"I just personally don't feel right not letting a kid do what they biologically have to," she said.

But aside from the obvious medical issues that can arise from withholding urine or bowel movements, such as weakened bladder muscles, urinary tract infections, or constipation, child development and parenting expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa said limiting access to school bathrooms can also damage students' sense of personal boundaries and safety.

"Students need to know, whether they use the privilege or not, that there is a private place to go at any time, should a genuine need arise," Gilboa told TODAY Parents.

"That need might be physical — like needing to pee, or checking to see if that weird feeling is your first menstrual period — or it might be emotional," she explained.

"Did a child just remember about a sick grandparent, fighting parents, or get teased or feel embarrassed? School is a very public place where children and teens routinely feel scrutinized and on display to everyone around them," said Gilboa. "It is developmentally important for them to know that they can have a moment of privacy when it's truly needed, and without having to explain — in front of everyone — why it's needed.

"Schools absolutely need solutions to bad behavior and rule-breaking around bathroom trips, but this is not one of those healthy solutions."

Said Sifferman of her high school students, "Do they abuse it? Probably. But I can't justify telling a kid they can't use the restroom."