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If school bathrooms featured in the civil-rights movement of the 1950s, they played an even more important role in the women’s-rights movement of the 1970s. In 1972, the U.S. Congress passed Title IX to ensure equal access to federal educational programs in general, and to athletic programs in particular. Among other things, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights required schools to provide locker rooms of equal size and quality to both men and women.
Nonetheless, some school districts took decades to retrofit their locker rooms, often at considerable cost. In two North Carolina high schools, the girls’ basketball and softball teams had no place to change until a Title IX review in 2008, which led to a $50,000 renovation two years later.
During the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton years, fears of drugs, promiscuity, and disorder led school administrators to devise new methods for surveilling school bathrooms. At Terryville High School, in Connecticut, students protested in 1988 when the school decided to hire bathroom monitors to prevent teenage smoking. Four years later, New Hampshire’s Mascenic Regional High School installed cameras in bathrooms to combat vandalism and sales of marijuana. School bathrooms became ground zero in the nation’s moral panic over juvenile delinquency.
In this “War on Drugs” climate, the courts regularly affirmed these intrusive measures as legal ones. In 1981, a U.S. District Court found that the privacy of a New Haven 10th grader had not been violated after a school employee watched him buying marijuana through a two-way bathroom mirror. In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that schools in Oregon could compel athletes to take random urine tests in locker rooms. The judges argued that “public school locker rooms … are not notable for the privacy they afford,” and that there is “an element of communal undress inherent in athletic participation.” Drawing on this logic, they ruled that students had little reasonable expectation of privacy, and that it was constitutional to subject them to a drug-testing regime.
Cultural portrayals of school bathrooms reinforced their legal construction as zones of peril. In the 1976 film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Carrie, the title character murders her classmates after being bullied in an after-gym shower. Five years later, the cult comedy Porky’s featured a group of teenage boys peeping at girls showering in school. In the popular imagination, school bathrooms brimmed with pathology and repressed sexuality.
Partly due to these anxieties, school showers—particularly communal showers—fell into disuse in the late 1980s and 1990s. In 1996, The New York Times published a feature with the headline, “Students Still Sweat, They Just Don’t Shower.” Mandatory showers became problematic as the concept of “children’s rights” gained currency, eroding the legal and social authority of schools. In 1994, the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue a Pennsylvania high school over its compulsory showers policy, echoing Joan Aveline Lawrence’s lawsuit a half-century earlier. But unlike in 1940, the school district backed down, and others similarly ended compulsory showers to avoid the threat of litigation.