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Give Students Free Tampons, Pads, Advocates Say. Here's Why Some Schools Already Do

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A growing number of schools are offering free menstrual products, hoping to meet the needs of low-income students who don't have ready access to tampons and sanitary pads.

And, as state and federal education laws put a growing emphasis on school attendance, more schools may consider providing such products in an effort to address every obstacle that may keep students out of the classroom.

Beyond attendance, addressing "period poverty" by providing such products in school restrooms is a way of building "safe and trusted" learning environments for students, a group of youth and women's activists told U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos this week.

The United for Access campaign brought together groups like Period, which advocates for education and access to menstrual products; female celebrities; and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. The campaign was led by menstrual product company Thinx, which held a public demonstration Monday.

"Menstrual hygiene products are basic necessities, and the inability to access them affects a student's freedom to study, be healthy, and participate in society with dignity," the group's letter to DeVos said. It calls on the federal agency to fund programs that provide free menstrual products in schools and to champion education about periods in schools.

Some schools have already taken such steps. New York City began offering free products in schools in 2016, and New York State later followed its lead in 2018.

Illinois has a similar law, and California mandates free feminine products in schools with large numbers of low-income students.

Individual teachers and school nurses have also long kept tampons and pads on hand on an ad-hoc basis, often using their own money to buy such supplies along with snacks, Band-Aids, and other student necessities. And some students have organized efforts to provide feminine supplies for classmates.

Will more schools consider formal initiatives like New York's in the future? 

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal education law, schools have new requirements to publicly report rates of chronic absenteeism. And 36 states included the measure in their school accountability plans. Though states adopted varying definitions, chronic absenteeism is often defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days for any reason, including excused absences due to illness and suspensions. Those absences add up quickly.

Attendance advocates point to all kinds of school-based efforts to boost attendance, especially for students from low-income families. A group of Texas districts, for example, worked with community organizations to offer free flu shots for students and their families to lower rates of acute illness. Free menstrual products may fit within such strategies.

On the other hand, stocking up on supplies that half of students use on a monthly basis could prove to be quite costly, which may cause some schools and districts to shy away from such broad efforts. When New York adopted its policy, some members of the public were concerned schools would be forced to channel funds from other activities to meet the unfunded mandate.

Photo: Getty Images

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