Period products aren't free or accessible in schools. Students want to make that happen

Utah high school senior Megan Reid was determined to get dispensers with period products in her school bathrooms last school year.

It came at a big cost: Reid convinced legislators to make it happen in part by telling them about the times she bled through her pants at school and missed class looking for supplies. And she told them about the days she missed class completely because of the shame she felt.

She called the experience "embarrassing," but worthwhile in the end. Utah's legislature unanimously passed H.B. 162, sponsored by Republican Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, earlier this year following a push from advocates, including ReidNow all of her classmates, and future students at her high school in West Valley City, Utah, have access to high-quality pads and tampons at no cost in female and unisex school bathrooms.

"We won’t have to miss classes or feel ashamed," said Reid, 17.

Free and accessible period products at school are one route to ensuring student's academic achievement and attendance in schools, advocates say. While many people agree that all teens can't afford menstrual products, there isn't consensus about the solution. The disagreement shows up in patchy state and local laws, in absence of requirements to provide period products in federal law or guidance and in resistance from some school leaders and administrators.

Utah is now one of a few states that requires schools to have period products readily available in female and unisex school bathrooms. But many teens are scrambling to get by in states where there isn't similar legislation. And with inflation hiking the price of tampons and pads, advocates are calling attention to the inequity among states and urging legislators to do more to help students who have periods – many of whom are now trying to recover from pandemic-related learning loss.

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Other states are following suit: At least six bills addressing period products in schools passed this year, and "there are a number in the works" for the next legislative session, including in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, said Molly Todd Rudy, a spokesperson for the company Aunt Flow, which helps students advocate against period poverty in their schools.

Aunt Flow CEO Claire Coder with advocates for easy, free access to menstrual supplies.
Aunt Flow CEO Claire Coder with advocates for easy, free access to menstrual supplies.

But there's more to do, Rudy said.

"The pandemic exacerbated poverty. We're going into a recession," Rudy said. "More students, more young people and minorities are going to suffer inequitably as they experience period poverty,"

More: On Period Action Day, 1 in 4 struggle to buy menstrual products. 22 states still tax them.

What is period poverty? Why does it matter?

When people can't afford menstrual products, it leads to period poverty. And when students don't have easy access to pads or tampons when they need them, they're more likely to miss class. That can affect their ability to learn, research shows. It's especially problematic now, with many students across the country behind where they should be because of pandemic-related school closures and a string of rising absentee rates, according to federal data and research.

More: Reading and math test scores fell across US during the pandemic. How did your state fare?

In one 2021 survey of 1,010 teenagers, two groups found that nearly a quarter of them "have struggled to afford period products, and the pandemic has only heightened barriers." A 2019 survey showed that more than four in five teenagers have "either missed class time or know a classmate who missed class time because they did not have access to period products." The surveys, by SKDK Online and Harris Insights & Analytics, were commissioned by Thinx and PERIOD, one company and one nonprofit involved in advancing menstruation equity in the U.S.

The groups and other advocates are calling on federal lawmakers to help. They're asking specifically for the passage of the Menstrual Equity for All Act to improve access to period products in schools. In 2021, Rep. Grace Ming (D-New York) reintroduced the bill, H.R. 3614, which would in part give states "the option to use federal grant funds to provide students with free menstrual products in schools." Little action has been taken on the House bill this year, though it has 106 cosponsors, all Democrats.

“The measure continues to be among my top priorities, Meng said, "and despite a busy lame duck session ahead, I remain hopeful in the ability to advance this legislation.”

Which states offer free, accessible period products at schools?

A total of at least 20 states and jurisdictions have some requirements for schools to provide period products to students, or allow schools to use funds to provide those products. Some are more comprehensive than others, according to a map of legislation from Aunt Flow. California, Hawaii, Delaware, Maine (in grades six to 12), New York, Utah (in certain restrooms), Virginia and Washington are some of the states that mandate schools to have free period products in their classrooms.

Other states including Alabama and Colorado have passed legislation to help students in low-income schools gain access to period products. In Colorado, advocate Diane Cushman Neal founded Donations for Dignity to raise money for and donate period products to people during the pandemic. Cushman and other advocates helped advocate for and pass legislation in Colorado creating the Menstrual Hygiene Products Accessibility grant program for schools.

And in some states where there is no legislation, individual districts are acting. Rudy credited local grassroots efforts and social media callouts from students for the progress.

More: Advocates push for accessibility to menstrual products as period poverty persists in the U.S.

Lindse Barks' daughters, sixth grader Jo (left) and eighth grader Charlee hold period products at their school in Oklahoma.
Lindse Barks' daughters, sixth grader Jo (left) and eighth grader Charlee hold period products at their school in Oklahoma.

In Oklahoma, for instance, where no state law requires schools to provide period products, student access to them varies across districts. The middle school Lindse Barks' sixth and eighth grade daughters attend, however, has dispensers filled with period products in every bathroom as a result of Barks' advocacy with her nonprofit organization Mid-Del Public Schools Foundation and partnership with a local health organization who helped fund them, and Aunt Flow.

But a nearby district with different leadership doesn't have them at all, she said. That's the case in several other states.

What obstacles do advocates face?

Some advocates are calling on the federal Education Department to intervene. They want menstrual products mandated under federal Title IX law, which protects students from sex discrimination that interferes with their education.

"The only true solution to cure Title IX violations on the basis of menstruation requires the Department of Education to take action,” wrote Brooke E. López in a piece for UNT Dallas College of Law in 2020.

The Education Department said it's not their call.

"Whether a school or district has a responsibility to provide menstrual products is dependent on state or local law – it’s not a federal responsibility," a spokesperson for the Education Department said.

Others want to expand education on menstruation to destigmatize periods.

They're pushing lawmakers to "prioritize medically accurate sex education at the state level to ensure period education is accessible and available for all students" in future legislation, the 2019 report from Thinx and PERIOD reads.

More: Who decided a period leak was the end of the world?

Resistance to equitable period product access is often a result of tight budgets, a lack of understanding about the need, or correlation between it and sex education. In schools that don't have supplies in bathrooms, teachers are often footing the bill to keep their classrooms stocked instead, Barks said.

"Most decision makers don’t menstruate and they don’t understand why it's necessary. There's a 'Roe v. Bro' TikTok video that shows many men don't know even know how can you can even pee with a tampon on," Sarah Howard, a spokesperson for Aunt Flow, said. "We have to break down the barrier ... And schools need to look at when they're implementing nice amenities, when they don’t even have these necessities."

Reach Kayla Jimenez at Follow her on Twitter @kaylajjimenez.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Advocates fighting period poverty demand free pads, tampons in schools