In the first-floor women’s bathroom of Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School on Tuesday, Pooja Muthuraj and half a dozen other students placed tampons into a mailbox-like dispenser.
The seven 6-by-8-inch containers, installed across the school’s bathrooms and filled with donated period products, ensure students won’t face the inconvenience or embarrassment of trekking to the nurse clinic for emergency situations or in case of an inability to afford their own pads or tampons.
“It should be part of the school’s budget. It’s half of their student body that has this need,” said Muthuraj, a 15-year-old sophomore. “If you have toilet paper in school bathrooms, if you have soap, if you have other necessities, why wouldn’t you have sanitary products?”
The Virginia State Senate agrees. As Mutharaj and her peers got to work Tuesday, the body unanimously advanced a proposal from Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, that would make Virginia the fifth state to require that public schools provide free menstrual supplies in restrooms, alongside California, Illinois, New York and New Hampshire.
The measure is not likely to face opposition in the House of Delegates, said Republican Party of Virginia spokesman Garren Shipley, although school systems typically bristle at the prospect of an unfunded mandate.
The bill, SB232, leaves it to the schools to figure out how to pay for the $13 dispensers and additional menstrual supplies. It initially only applied to schools where at least 40% of students qualified for free or reduced lunch, a rough gauge of poverty.
“It should be shifting it from nurse’s clinics. If there’s a problem in a year, I’m happy to go back and assess that,” Boysko said.
Students at Maggie Walker said some of their peers were uncomfortable making the walk to the nurse’s clinic on the first floor. The time it takes to walk to the clinic ranges from about three minutes from the third floor to about a minute-and-a-half from a first-floor classroom. A rough estimate of the time it takes to walk to a bathroom from a classroom is 16 seconds.
The products placed in the schools’ bathrooms on Tuesday were donated by Sylvia’s Sisters, a nonprofit focused on offsetting period poverty by providing feminine hygiene products to schools and shelters. The organization provided 506 tampons and 1,536 pads for the boxes, to supplement the clinic’s supply.
Jennifer Taylor, president of Sylvia’s Sisters, said girls who lack means or access to hygiene products run the risk of developing infections or toxic shock syndrome. About one in five teens reported struggling to afford period products during a 1,000-person study conducted by research firm Harris Analytics.
Fairfax County Public Schools, one of Boysko’s districts, piloted a program in November across 37 schools to have pads and tampons in bathrooms using the existing budget.
It’s unclear what Boysko’s proposal would mean for local school budgets. Max Smith, assistant director of operations at Maggie Walker, said any increased costs need to be anticipated and examined.
“If there’s no funding attached to it, that would be something to consider in the next budget cycle,” Smith said. “Public school budgets are very tight. It would be a challenge.”
Hanover County Public Schools spokesman Chris Whitley said in an email that as a rule, the district opposes unfunded mandates. With about 400 education-related bills on the table, Whitley said school officials hadn’t talked about the potential costs of Boysko’s proposal.
In Henrico County Public Schools, nurses across the 70-plus schools already order feminine hygiene products as needed, according to spokesman Andy Jenks. He said that since that already exists, the district would be able to make adjustments as necessary.
Smith said Maggie Walker students who need monetary assistance can take products home for the weekend. The clinic’s director said no one has approached her with these concerns, but products are available with no questions asked. Students can be embarrassed to voice the need.
“Since it’s not talked about, people don’t realize that there is such a thing as period poverty,” Taylor said. “[They] don’t realize that if you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, then you surely do not how you’re going to manage your menstrual hygiene.”
The dispensers installed Tuesday feature a QR code sticker designed to compile data on why students were in need of period products, if they have ever gone without them because of financial constraints, and if they prefer pads or tampons.
Muthuraj sees the code as a means to raise awareness about what she sees as a human-rights issue.
“It’s almost like helping people that don’t have access to food,” Muthuraj said. “You don’t have to have experienced hunger on your own for yourself to help them.”