Focus

When Toilet Paper Becomes a Safety Concern

by David Moscinski

Every September as our students return to school, high school football games again draw enthusiastic weekend crowds, and Homecoming Week is celebrated anew. Trees begin to lose their leaves only to be re-adorned in white in that generation-bridging tradition known as toilet papering.

Community residents have differing opinions of the practice — determined in large part by whether they are on the giving or receiving end. The principal of a Wisconsin high school put the tradition in perspective when he said: “One of the problems we have in our community is that people think that toilet papering is safe, harmless, no-cost fun.” Today’s parents did it when they were kids and may even continue to silently condone the practice today.

The residents whom I hear from tend to be much less dismissive, particularly if students have trespassed on their property, leaving behind a white mess covering their trees and shrubbery or if their swimming pool filters have become clogged or if an out-of-hand celebration has led to even more serious vandalism.

Safety Concerns
And then there’s the personal safety matter. I’m aware of one vindictive student who ambushed classmates by blasting them with paint balls that had been frozen.
Some school districts have taken to canceling homecoming events because the student behavior has gotten so out of hand.

Teen-agers seldom walk to the site of a toilet-papering attack, preferring to use vehicles for a quicker getaway (although I once redirected a crowd of more than 200 scheming students on foot away from the village proper as they headed there at 10 p.m.). According to 2005 National Safety Council data, drivers under 20 years of age constitute less than 5 percent of all licensed drivers, yet they were involved in 10 percent of fatal accidents and nearly 14 percent of all traffic accidents. The most common time for teen accidents is between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m., which is also prime time for toilet papering and underage drinking. The combination of driving, “tp”ing and drinking certainly can lead to serious safety hazards.

A Deterrence Plan
Toilet papering is an issue that should be addressed by district leadership to prevent potential harm and destructive acts. Our community responded by organizing a student-community group to plan ways to eliminate toilet papering over time. We discovered you should do your planning during winter months, far enough removed from the emotion of the fall “tp” activity.

Our plan included these components:
• Create high expectations for student behavior.
Announce to students at the start of the school year that no toilet papering will be tolerated. Because most high schools consist of four classes with each trying to out-do its previous toilet papering performance, it may take more than one year to fully eliminate the behavior as the effect of the administrative expectation takes its toll on each successive class.

• Set consequences for individual behavior.
A mob consists of individuals who first must decide whether they will become part of the larger group. Setting consequences for individual behavior may force the student to think before acting. Being seen as a member of a crowd engaged in toilet papering can be added to the school district’s conduct code list of violations as an activity unbecoming an athlete or extracurricular participant. For students not covered by the code, toilet papering can be cause for banishment from homecoming activities.

• Get law enforcement involved.
Obtain a commitment from local law enforcement officers they will confiscate the “ammunition” from mobs of students. In fact, cash-strapped public agencies may restock a year’s supply of toilet paper for the town library, police and fire stations and public park restrooms in one night of diligent work by the police.

When students are stopped for toilet papering, officers should be checking for underage drinking. Request extra patrols during homecoming week and give the officers the home addresses of athletes and cheerleaders who might be likely targets.

• Involve the community and parents.
Publicize the expectation there will be no toilet papering. An individual needs to hear a message at least three times before it sinks in. Parents need to ask their children where they are going late on a school night and express disapproval of these activities. Parental influence can give the child an excuse to refrain. “Really guys, I’d like to do it but my mom would bake me for Sunday dinner if she caught me.”

• Avoid scheduling other home events during the week.
There is no reason to encourage a mob of students to form after the volleyball matches are completed a day or two before Homecoming.

Hire extra supervision at night during homecoming week.
Use of the “rent a cop” can be helpful if the school grounds are a target. The role of the officer is to serve as a visible deterrent as well as to confiscate ammunition if the mob shows up.

Break in Tradition
This effort may seem daunting with a lot of time devoted to eliminating what is really a student/community problem. Seen from a safety standpoint, however, it is a chance to keep students healthy and safe. All the potential fun of toilet papering is not worth the loss of one student life in a late night auto accident.

Good planning, well ahead of homecoming, will help eliminate the problem over time. While we figured it would take four years to change the behavior in our high school, it was gone in two. There was no toilet papering at school or in the community during Homecoming 2006, breaking a long-standing tradition that went back at least two generations.

Dave Moscinski is superintendent of the Shiocton School District, P.O. Box 68, Shiocton, WI 54170. E-mail: dmoscins@shiocton.k12.wi.us