Schools Throw in the Towel on Getting Kids to Shower


Let’s say you are the type of student in high school who loves physical education. It’s your favorite class. You run to P.E.

Despite this making you a minority on the planet Teenville, you also love the uniforms. Love running around the track, vaulting hurdles, swimming laps, sweating through . . . ahhh, there. There’s that one thing about P.E. you probably hate, like every teenager before and after you: the dreaded communal shower in the locker room.

Some things about P.E. never change. But as the 1996 fall semester unfolds in Orange County, it is clear one thing has: Few students shower at school now.


Not after P.E. Not after a two-hour round of competitive basketball. Not after a stinky, sweaty football game.

“I can’t remember the last time I saw a kid take a shower,” says Dan Miller, veteran athletic director at Anaheim High School, which more than 2,000 students attend.

A few years ago, Anaheim’s football coach, Allen Carter, made the team shower. Miller entered the locker room and heard gushing water. He was alarmed. What was going on? Did he have a plumbing leak on his hands?

“I remember being shocked,” Miller adds, laughing, “to actually find kids there.” //

There is no code governing school showers, according to the California Department of Education. But the prevailing view among public educators is that it’s no longer appropriate to require students to take showers. Teachers are more sensitive to charges of harassment. Students are more likely to claim--and be granted--a right to some privacy.

In December 1994, a Pennsylvania school district dropped its showering requirement after the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue on behalf of a teenage girl. The ACLU argued that a student’s right to privacy is violated if he or she is forced to be naked before classmates.

And then there’s the matter of towels.

Schools gradually stopped providing them and their laundering as they looked for ways to save money after Proposition 13 led to reduced property tax revenue for schools. Students cannot be charged separately for them because the state bans public schools from levying fees connected with required courses. Teachers say it makes it harder to insist on showers when as many as 2,000 kids would need to be responsible for bringing towels to and from school all week because they can’t leave wet ones in their lockers.

P.E instructors and coaches say they still preach the virtues of hygiene and encourage showering. But given the choice, a majority of students don’t.


This new reality has emerged around the country, according to the National Assn. for Sport and Physical Education, which comprises teachers and coaches.

Brent Ellis, a sophomore at Westminster High School, is goalie for the varsity water polo team. He and his teammates are exceptions. They actually shower.

But not in the nude.

“All the guys I know shower in swimsuits,” says Ellis, who is tanned and seems confident. “I have never seen anyone shower at school in the nude. I have two friends who are not on the team who just don’t shower. P.E. is their last class of the day.

“My dad said [that] at his gym, nobody wears anything in the shower, and I was like, ‘What?! That’s weird.’ ”

So seldom are the showers used in some middle school student locker rooms that campus furniture is stored there. Occasionally, the showers don’t work. If they do work, there may not always be hot water available.

Budgets are so tight that a few schools figure it’s wasteful to repair plumbing or hot water tanks for showers that are rarely used.

Bonnie Mohnsen, who oversees physical education programs for the Orange County Board of Education, says that as the number of students showering trickled down, many schools began doing away with towel service. That towels are no longer provided as they were a generation ago is a pet peeve of Katella High School Athletic Director Tom Danley, who thinks youths would be inclined to shower if they didn’t have to bring towels to school. But towel laundry and replacement are luxuries at many campuses.

“We just had all our drains routed, so yes, the showers work and there is hot water in both the locker room for P.E. and the one for the athletic teams,” says Kim Jeffers, varsity softball coach and girls athletic director at Anaheim High School. “But we also don’t have towels for them. I think it’s more of an issue of modesty, though.”

At Costa Mesa High School, showering after P.E. is strictly voluntary for the 1,800 students in grades 7 through 12, says Principal Andy Hernandez, adding, however, that the school offers students bonus points for showering to encourage it.

“Showers went out of vogue a few years back when the state decided we could no longer charge kids for the towel fee,” Hernandez adds, referring to a laundering charge. “At that point, most schools [unofficially] ended mandatory showers.”

Even after competition, few athletes shower at school--their own or the opposing team’s, according to coaches at many of the county’s 75 high schools.

The basketball team at Corona del Mar High School finishes a game and--perspiring or not--dons sweats and rides the bus back to campus. Then players go home to shower, says Coach Paul Orris. The only time he sees P.E. students shower is after they have been swimming. And then, they shower in swimsuits.

“My son played football for three years,” says one Anaheim father, “and I think he showered all of maybe two times at Magnolia High. He’d rather get onto the team bus all sweaty and come home to shower.”

In many cases, certainly with his own children, it is less modesty than the wish to not stand out that overrides all, he says. In other words, because the modest are the majority, kids who are not self-conscious feel suddenly self-conscious about that.

“It’s interesting,” he adds with amusement, “I guess we have whole schools of kids walking around campus all day like sweaty little pigs.”

Says Miller, Anaheim’s athletic director: “Fortunately, I haven’t had to ride the team bus for 12 or 13 years.”

One boy from Edison High School in Huntington Beach says he is torn about his choice between showering or not after P.E. class.

Interviewed at Westminster Mall while shopping for back-to-school wear, the youth insisted on talking some distance from the food court area that is a magnet for teenagers promenading the tables, eyes darting about to check and be checked out. This P.E. can be such a sensitive subject.

Tall but skinny, the 15-year-old says he subjects himself to mockery if he takes a shower in front of other boys. If he doesn’t, he risks alienating fellow students all day with body odor. He opts for deodorant and the latter.

“I have P.E. second period, so I have to like load on the Right Guard and hope it lasts me,” says the teen, who asked that his name not be used. “Don’t even say what color hair I have. I’m sort of a geek anyway, so I don’t need any more hassles.”

Teachers say timeless are the fears that young people have about their physique measuring up to their peers. Boys and girls alike obsess about their appearance in the tender junior to senior high school years.

Requiring students to shower, some teachers and P.E. experts say, can be extremely counterproductive.

Pressuring unnerved youths to trudge into a situation fraught with potential embarrassment does not serve the larger aim behind the framework. That’s the 2-year-old, statewide program to recondition public school P.E. programs. The goal ultimately is to inspire interest in fitness and teach skills that will serve students for the rest of their lives.

At Huntington Park High School, the gym showers were out of commission for two years for repairs. Instead of sweat-inducing activities, students were allowed to walk around the track each day during phys ed. Teachers say some kids complained, but P.E. attendance shot up. The reason? No worries about baring oneself in the shower, plus more time to socialize and stroll.

Given that teenhood is a time when one nose pimple can ruin a kid’s day, changing into a P.E. uniform might be enough to leave some students self-conscious. Teachers, though, say it’s the rare kid who will actually say so.

“Its definitely modesty, and it’s definitely the age group you’re working with--how important it is at that age for privacy,” Mohnsen, of the county’s education board, says. “I don’t know that we, at our age, would want to shower in the gang showers. And at this age, that’s a traumatic experience for adolescents.”

Adds Jeanne Bartelt, the state Department of Education’s physical education consultant and former high school and college P.E. teacher in Northern California: “I was just as scared and self-conscious at that age. Even in the Marine Corps! I discovered that even if I got up at 4 a.m. to shower in private, there was someone else up at 3 doing the same thing.

“If you’re a good teacher, and paying attention to your kids,” she says, “you can tell if modesty” or fear of disrobing in the communal locker room is preventing a student from participating in P.E.


At Aliso Niguel High, just 4 years old, showers have teal and beige tile and individual temperature controls, says Alma Ming, manager of the girls’ locker room. Perhaps because it’s more inviting, she says, a lot of the kids shower, even if they lather up in their swimsuits.

“We have some kids who are very secure in their bodies,” Ming says. “And because we are near the beach . . . I think there is a different mind-set; kids are used to being outside with fewer clothes on.”

Still, one would expect a towel to be used before dressing. At Aliso Niguel, students often use towels while dressing.

“We call it changing surfer style,” an amused Ming says. Stealing the style of local surfers who often put their swimsuits on in the beach parking lot, the students wrap a towel around themselves and shimmy clothes on and off beneath it.

“It’s amazing,” Ming says, “how they can put an entire outfit on under a beach towel like that.”