The Hidden Health Crisis in the Public School System

Elaine starts her typical school day as she enters the building of her high school. She heads toward her homeroom and settles in for first-period Algebra. As she takes her seat, she feels a sudden and unexpected discomfort that she knows all too well. Fidgeting a bit, she realizes her period has started a week early. A sudden dread kicks in as Elaine thinks about the humiliation of bleeding through her pants in front of her peers. She begins to debate her limited options in her head. Even though she does not have any pads or tampons, Elaine does not feel comfortable asking her classmates or teachers. Instead, she can go to the nurse, use toilet paper in the school bathroom, or go home and get supplies herself.  

Elaine decides to go to the nurse after only being in class for a few minutes. She walks slowly down the hallway working up the courage to ask for help. Finally, she enters the nurse’s office and bashfully explains her predicament. The nurse gladly provides her with a sanitary napkin. Elaine then goes to the bathroom and finds that she has already leaked through the pants. But she knows she has already missed ten minutes of class and wants to return, so she ties her hoodie around her waist and goes back, effectively ruining her clothes. Returning fifteen minutes into the class period, Elaine feels lost and confused as she sees the whiteboard full of quadratic equations she missed learning about while dealing with her period.  

A NATIONAL ISSUE 

This difficult situation is not unique to Elaine but affects thousands of young people. This issue is known as period poverty, which the American Medical Women’s Association defines as inadequate access to menstrual hygiene tools and education. This issue affects 1 in 4 students who will inevitably feel higher rates of stress and depression and lowered academic performance. The simple solution is for public schools to start providing free menstrual products in their school bathrooms. 

One of the main effects of period poverty on those who menstruate is their academic performance. Dealing with unpredictable menstruation can be a huge factor for stress and anxiety. Without a reliable way to deal with their period, many students are forced to use other means like toilet paper to cover themselves. But without period products, things like toilet paper will inevitably cause leakage which is attached to public shame in the classroom. A study by PERIOD and Thinx found that 70% of students feel that their school environment made them self-conscious about their period. Embarrassment hinders students, like Elaine, from asking for help from peers or teachers. The anxiety and discomfort that comes with their period makes it much harder for students to focus on schoolwork and inevitably affects their mental health.  

Along with stress, by dealing with the extra variables of non-guaranteed menstrual products students are much more likely to miss class time, just like Elaine had. The same study as above has proven that 4 out of 5 menstruating students have missed class time because of a lack of access to period products. Valuable time is taken up by female students looking to locate some form of a period product either at school or at home. This is added time that could be spent in the classroom if there was a guaranteed resource available in the bathroom.  

And it isn’t always a guarantee that students will have access to a sanitary napkin or tampon in their personal lives. The Thinx study also showed that 1 in 5 teens have struggled to afford period products or were unable to purchase them. Low-socioeconomic students are already extremely vulnerable without their period, but adding the stress of menstruation only makes their education more difficult. In many cases, these students are unable to attend school during their period or are forced to use risky and improper methods to keep their periods hidden. In an environment that teaches students to hide their period, not having any access to any product causes severe emotional, physical, and academic consequences.  

MAKING A CHANGE 

The solution to all of these problems revolves around guaranteed access to menstrual products for students. Making periods and the conversation that surrounds them more accessible, make it much easier for those menstruating when they need a tampon or pad and saves them shame from leaking on their clothes. It also breaks down the barrier for students who can’t afford period products and helps them to feel safe at school. All of this will help students feel more comfortable with their period and allow them to have dialogue around the topic when needed. And along with benefiting the individuals, free period products have proven to create significantly higher rates of attendance and engagement in the classroom such as a New York public school that implemented free pads and tampons in their bathrooms. Because of it, their attendance increased by 2.4%. That study was used as a trial to test the benefits of free menstrual products in schools. Because of its success, in 2016, New York City became the first U.S. city to provide free pads and tampons in public schools. And the legislation has since spread statewide. Most recently, California legislation will now require free menstrual products in public schools and colleges starting in the 2022-2023 school year. This was introduced in 2017 and finally signed into law in October 2021.  

What most educational leaders fail to understand is that menstrual products should not be treated as nonessential. It is a required part of young people’s lives, especially in the school setting, and should be treated as such. Michele Anzabi, president of PERIOD at the University of Pennsylvania, describes it best: “Menstrual products should be treated in the same way you treat restocking toilet paper. It’s a medical necessity and therefore, it should not be hindered by conversations about cost but treated as something that needs to be addressed.” 

The conversation has since shifted beyond state legislation and is now being discussed at the national level. In May 2021, the Menstrual Equity For All Act was introduced in the House. While its purpose is to supply free sanitary napkins and tampons in all public locations, there is an emphasis on college campuses and public schools. This would be hugely beneficial for young people across the country who no longer need to feel the stress of unreliability with their periods.  

A lack of menstrual products is a major problem for many young people across the country. It creates stress, embarrassment, and even health complications as public schools sit idly by. But a simple solution can address all of these issues. Public schools need to require free period products for their menstruating students. They deserve to be able to go into a bathroom with the guarantee that their period will be taken care of. Nancy Kramer, the founder of Free the Tampons, makes a comparison by asking: “Who decided toilet paper was free, but tampons weren’t?” Those who deal with menstruation deserve to be able to go into a bathroom with the guarantee that their period can be taken care of. This requires changing how people view period products – no longer as luxury items, but as a medical necessity.  

Authored by NOW Chapters and Membership Intern, Natalie Bavos-Chen

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