Leon Schools students say it’s time to end ‘period poverty’ with free pads, tampons

Tallahassee Democrat | CD Davidson-Hiers | March 18, 2021

A young woman sits in her classroom. She’s 12 years old, or 14, or 17. She feels a tug in her body somewhere underneath her stomach. The space between her hips starts to hurt. She feels nauseated. Or, perhaps, she feels nothing but a twinge. 

When she stands up at the sound of the school bell, she asks one of her friends to look at her rear end, to check for blood.

In Leon County’s traditional public schools, if she needs a sanitary pad or a tampon and doesn’t have one, she’ll need to walk across campus to the nurse’s office, the guidance office, or to the front office — and try not to bleed through her pants. 

Some Leon County Schools students now want to change that.

At a recent School Board meeting, two high school students built on another’s idea to stock schools’ girls’ bathrooms with pads and tampons. They’re asking the board to take a serious look at what they call “period poverty” and give teenaged girls who’ve started menstruating the resources to care for themselves. 

Even state lawmakers are paying attention to the issue: Legislation pending this session (HB 75SB 242) would require public school districts, including charter schools, to make pads and tampons accessible in restrooms, free of charge. 

Too many girls are leaving school during the day or not coming in “because they do not have access to menstrual products,” said Senate bill sponsor Lauren Book, D-Plantation. “Girls pay a price when these products aren’t free, and providing them will go a long way toward equity in education.”

Last year, as the COVID-19 pandemic surged through Leon County, Rickards High School sophomore Amaya Waymon, 15, cast about for a way to fund her community project GirlFlo.

With a grant from the Grip Tape organization, Amaya was able to fund putting feminine hygiene products in Woodville Elementary, Nims Middle, Griffin Middle, Second Chance School, and the Success Academy at the Ghazvini Learning Center, the Tallahassee Democrat’s weekly reader-submitted Chronicle publication reported. 

In September, Amaya was focused on getting products into Title 1 schools’ restrooms. Title 1 schools receive Title 1 federal funding to help offset the costs of providing quality education to students living at or near the poverty line.

Lawton Chiles High School senior Arsha Harris and Leon High School student Layne Schulte are now building on that idea. 

Arsha serves as the student representative at the School Board and Layne is the chair of the Student District Advisory Council. And School Board member Rosanne Wood introduced Amaya and Arsha to each other.

Keeping bathrooms stocked

One out of five girls may miss school because of a lack of access to pads or tampons, say researchers out of the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. They called it an often-ignored public health crisis in which girls will resort to using rags, paper towels, toilet paper or even cardboard. 

“I would define period poverty as lacking the resources and being afraid to say something about it,” Amaya said in a recent interview. She said schools also should make enough pads or tampons available so girls can take them home during the weekends or during breaks. 

The teens hope to fully stock pads in middle school girls’ bathrooms and pads and tampons in high school girls’ bathrooms. 

Girls will typically start their periods around age 12 but may begin as early as 8, according to medical experts. Over 8,100 girls around this age are enrolled in the 20 Leon County traditional public middle and high schools, according to district data. 

The student advocates behind the project have not yet figured out what the entire cost of the project will be for a year. But if one girl uses one tampon or pad every four hours, and uses four tampons or pads per day for about seven days, she could go through roughly 1,500 tampons or pads in a year.

After Arsha described “waddling” down to the front office for a pad or tampon during a February School Board meeting, board member Wood said she would commit $5,000 to a project that aims at combatting period poverty.

School Board Chair Joy Bowen echoed support for the project and said it would need to go beyond the high school level and all the way down to elementary schools. 

The issue may also need to expand to consider the students who require menstrual products but who no longer identify as female. For transgender students such as SAIL High School’s Skyler Myers, 17, pads and tampons in girls’ bathrooms alone would pose a problem. 

When Skyler was a student at Leon High School, he said he tried to avoid using bathrooms altogether as a way to not compound dysphoria, the uneasiness felt by those navigating a gender they don’t feel they are.

Skyler identifies as a transgender boy and transferred to SAIL from Leon High School to be where he said he felt more comfortable. At SAIL, pads and tampons are available for free in the clinic and for a small fee in girls’ bathrooms, he said. 

“It’d be really hard for trans students to get products and make them more dysphoric to go into the women’s restroom, on top of the fact that they’re on their period,” Skyler said. “At SAIL, basically everyone except for (some students) use the women’s restroom because it’s cleaner. Though SAIL would probably just put (tampons and pads) in both.”

Finding the money

Funding for the project may not be as easy as committing dollars to the cause. 

During a later board meeting, Assistant Superintendent Alan Cox reported to the board that he had located a couple of dispensers that could house the products, but the district would need to decide whether to charge for each item and how much. 

Cox later explained that school district procedures may require the board to open competitive bid processes for vendors of the dispensers, which cost an estimated $250, and schools would need to figure out how to control access to the products. 

“I’m all for it, we just have to figure out how,” he said. “It’d be a great opportunity for a student group to monitor at the high schools … I think it’d be a great project for student government.” 

Arsha and Amaya are united on this: Charging for pads and tampons defeats the purpose of having them so accessible. Cox later agreed he did not think pads and tampons were items students would abuse but was still a question the district would need to answer. 

The competitive bid process would put a delay on the students’ efforts to stock bathrooms, he added.

The district does not prohibit a student-run initiative that would stock bathrooms with pads and tampons. Students could monitor supply and demand and collect the items themselves, he said. This could speed the process up for getting products into girls’ bathrooms. 

After spring break, Arsha said the group plans to meet again with district administration and with representatives from each high school to discuss how to move forward. 

“I think free, accessible pads and tampons are something students would greatly appreciate being able to use,” Rickards student Amaya said.

She suggested a school assembly that typically gathers at the beginning of the year to address school rules could also talk about the tampons and pads initiative.

“Menstruation matters and it shouldn’t be taboo,” Amaya said. 

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