For the first time, Fairfax County Public Schools will provide free feminine hygiene products in girls’ bathrooms at some schools after traditionally requiring that students visit a nurse’s clinic to obtain the products.

The Fairfax County School Board originally established a feminine hygiene pilot program to supply bins stocked with pads at 37 different schools during the 2019-2020 school year on Sept. 12, but the bins are only now being installed at additional participating schools.

The pilot includes 12 elementary schools, 12 middle schools, and 13 high schools. A full list of participating schools can be found on the school board’s website as an attachment to the Sept. 12 regular meeting agenda.

Bins to hold the pads have been ordered and are currently in the process of being installed by school staff, according to Fairfax County School Board at-large member Karen Keys-Gamarra, who originally proposed the pilot program to the board.

“I felt that we were placing an additional burden on girls that had to deal with something in the bathroom, just like everybody else, except we were requiring them to go this extra step,” Keys-Gamarra said. “We needed to ask questions as to what that could create in terms of access. The issue, ultimately, as far as I’m concerned, is access to education.”

Keys-Gamarra credits students for bringing the issue of menstrual equity to her attention.

It all started in fall 2018 with Natalie Baumeister venting about how difficult it was to acquire sanitary pads and tampons at school to other students during a meeting of Justice High School’s Girl Up Club, the school’s chapter of a United Nations Foundation program that supports young women advocating for gender equality and social change.

Baumeister, who was the club’s president at the time, expressed frustration over students on their period needing to visit the nurse’s clinic to get a pad if they did not bring any to school.

The middle school she attended had not been ideal either, providing feminine hygiene product dispensers in the bathrooms but failing to keep them consistently stocked, she recounted to The Washington Post last December.

Other Girl Up Club members echoed their president’s complaints, questioning why pads are not automatically provided in restrooms just like toilet paper and other necessities and describing the discomfort they felt at the prospect of asking Justice’s male nurse for assistance.

Instead of simply accepting their circumstances, the students decided to change them.

After doing some research to find a viable, cost-effective solution, the Girl Up Club officer team met with Justice High School principal Maria Eck and proposed getting portable bins to place in the school’s 13 girls’ bathrooms that the club would be responsible for maintaining.

Because FCPS already pays for the sanitary pads provided by school clinics, it would mostly be a matter of distributing those same products to a different location, with the bins as the only additional expense.

Eck agreed to purchase the containers, which arrived at Justice High School in November 2018. Students assembled the bins, stocked them with pads, and wrote signs in English and Spanish explaining that people could take what they needed for free.

The project was an instant success.

“Something that makes me happy was when I would go into the bathrooms and the bins would be like almost nearly empty,” Justice Girl Up Club vice president Zulma Solis said. “It would show us that there was a need and that these girls were really using it and joining it…I think all of us were just like, wow, like we did our job.”

As someone with an irregular period, Solis says not having menstrual products available in the school bathrooms presented clear challenges, sometimes forcing her to call her sister or mother, or even to leave school.

Solis was not alone, as research shows that a lack of access to menstrual products affects students’ attendance and academic performance, according to Bringing Resources to Aid Women’s Shelters (BRAWS) founder and executive director Holly Seibold.

A “State of the Period” study commissioned this year by the company Thinx Inc. and the nonprofit PERIOD found that one in five teenagers in the U.S. struggle to afford menstrual products or are unable to purchase them at all.

84 percent of the 1,000 teenagers surveyed, or more than four in five students, said they have either missed class time or know someone who has missed class time because of a lack of access to menstrual products.

66 percent of the surveyed students said they do not want to be at school when on their period, and 51 percent of students said they feel like their school does not care about them if it does not provide free menstrual products in bathrooms.

Seibold has evidence that access to menstrual products is an issue in Northern Virginia.

BRAWS partnered with Manassas Park City Schools at the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year to install sanitary product dispensers in all middle and high school female bathrooms.

At the onset of the “Dignity in Schools” program, schools staff surveyed students and found that almost 60 percent of students went to a school nurse for feminine hygiene products. Nearly 30 percent of students missed school or left early due to a lack of access to those products.

“It’s something that prevents girls or those who menstruate from getting an equitable education,” Seibold said. “In order to make it more equitable, they need to be provided by the school system, and they need to be placed somewhere that is accessible without losing time from class or getting permission.”

BRAWS, a nonprofit that distributes menstrual supplies and undergarments, contributed almost $2,000 in equipment to Manassas Park City Schools for its pilot program and partnered with the private charity KMZ Foundation to keep the machines full.

When Seibold heard about the Girl Up Club’s menstrual equity project at Justice, she quickly reached out to talk to students and see if BRAWS could help.

BRAWS partnered with Justice High School to deliver pads and, crucially, tampons, since Fairfax County Public Schools currently only purchases sanitary pads due to liability concerns with tampons.

Seibold also encouraged the Girl Up Club to survey students to see what kind of effect the menstrual products in the restrooms were having.

According to Justice High School English and film studies teacher Jennifer Golobic, who serves as the Girl Up Club’s faculty sponsor, about 100 students participated in the club’s survey, which had questions about their experiences with menstruation in high school.

Some students said they have missed upwards of 10 or even 15 days in a school year due to their period.

“I think that was really powerful, because then, when the county started taking an interest and thinking about how can we then bring this other schools, we had some kind of proof: this was what we did, and this was the impact it had,” Golobic said.

Despite concerns raised by some school staff about the potential cost of a pilot program, the Fairfax County School Board approved $200,000 in funding to provide feminine hygiene products and dispensers to 12 schools on July 25.

The board later expanded the program’s scope to 37 schools after deciding that FCPS staff’s initial recommendation, which focused on schools with high numbers of students receiving free and reduced lunches, was insufficient.

School board members recommended possible schools for the pilot with the goal of including a variety of ages and socioeconomic backgrounds, and staff then submitted a final list that the board approved on Sept. 12.

BRAWS is now collaborating with several Fairfax County schools involved in the pilot program.

“I’m really proud of FCPS for taking this huge step in the right direction,” Seibold said. “Hopefully, fingers crossed, it’ll be executed correctly and the results will be positive, and all schools in a year or two will have the same model as far as having access to the pads in the bathrooms, as opposed to the clinic.”

What started as a small effort by a handful of students to address a problem they saw in their school has now grown into a program involving dozens of schools with implications beyond Fairfax County.

BRAWS started partnering with schools to provide menstrual products in part as a response to the Virginia General Assembly’s failure to pass legislation improving students’ access to those supplies.

State Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D-33rd) introduced a bill on Jan. 9 to require all school boards to make tampons and pads available in public school bathrooms at all times and at no cost for students in sixth through 12th grade, but the legislation died in the Senate education and health committee.

Boysko saw more success on a bill to reduce sales taxes on personal hygiene products, including menstrual pads and tampons, to 1.5 percent. The bill, which was proposed in the House by Del. Kathy Byron (R-22nd) passed the General Assembly and became law on Mar. 18.

Legislators have only just begun filing proposals for the 2020 General Assembly session starting in January, but Keys-Gamarra hopes that Boysko or another representative will reintroduce her bill on menstrual supplies in school buildings.

“My hope is that it remains to be a part of [the school board’s] legislative agenda and that eventually, these products will be just as available as toilet paper and paper towels,” Keys-Gamarra said.

At the federal level, Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) introduced a Menstrual Equity for All Act in Congress on Mar. 26 to improve access to feminine hygiene products. The last action taken on the bill was a referral to the House subcommittee on crime, terrorism, and homeland security on May 3.

Because of the Girl Up Club’s work, some students from Justice High School were invited to Capitol Hill in March to talk about the bill.

“It’s sort of inspiring us as an entire Girl Up Club chapter to start doing new things…to serve as inspiration for other girls around to see how they can help in such a small way,” Solis said.

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