Getting your period at school is the worst. Austin ISD is trying to make it better.
The Austin Independent School District is making free menstrual products, such as tampons and sanitary napkins, available to students during the upcoming school year.
At the beginning of July, the district started installing dispensers with period products in gender neutral and girls' bathrooms at middle schools and high schools. The dispensers cost Austin ISD about $85,000. The district will also purchase the products to fill them. AISD is not installing the dispensers in elementary schools, but says the products will be available to those students as well.
Snow White, an Austin ISD parent and an Austin Ed Fund board member, played a key role in advocating for the dispensers and free menstrual products.
"It all started with a little white cabinet and a little empathy," she said.
White’s daughter was heading back to school in the spring of 2021 after doing virtual learning during the pandemic. White talked to her daughter about what she would do if she got her period while at school.
“And then it made me wonder: Is there access to products in the bathrooms?” she said.
White talked with the school counselor and found out that if her daughter got her period while at school, she could ask her teacher and go to the nurse’s office. If the nurse wasn’t there, she could ask someone in the school office.
“I thought to myself, my daughter is still adjusting to all these body changes at a young age. I’m not sure she’s going to have the confidence to ask two or three people for a pad,” White said. “And [my daughter] was worried the students would start asking her questions if she took a small bag to the restroom with her.”
The conversation prompted the counselor to check what was available in the bathrooms. Not only were there no menstrual products, but there were no trash cans within the bathroom stalls. White said the school quickly installed trash cans, but it was not clear if pads or tampons were going to be easily available.
So, White offered to bring a cabinet she had to the school and fill it with menstrual products at her own expense. She placed the first one in the sixth grade bathroom and then put two more cabinets in other bathrooms at the school.
“But then I started wondering, well, what about all the other schools in Austin? How are they handling this issue?” she said.
White ended up asking the Austin Ed Fund’s executive director to find out.
“I wanted to make sure the products were free. That was a big part of this initiative for me,” she said.
It turned out there was no consistency across Austin ISD campuses. White offered to start fundraising through the Austin Ed Fund to make sure every school in the district had a cabinet with free products. She said district officials also started talking to their own kids about what it’s like to get your period while at school. Shame and embarrassment came up repeatedly. And ultimately, AISD decided to install the menstrual product dispensers.
White said when she heard about the district’s decision, at first she was in shock.
“And then when it sunk in, it was just such an amazing feeling knowing that there’s going to be a generation of students that go through Austin that just thought this was always the case, you always had access to products,” she said. “And that’s so heartwarming for me knowing and just hearing some of the stories about the shame that students did go through getting their periods at school and not having access to products.”
Austin ISD is making menstrual products available to students at a critical time, as the U.S. continues to face a tampon shortage that gained national attention in June. Supply chain issues and inflation have made it harder for people who menstruate to get the products they need.
“The tampon shortage is still occurring across the U.S.,” said Dana Marlowe, the founder and executive director of I Support The Girls. The national nonprofit, which has an Austin chapter, provides menstrual products, bras and underwear to public schools, homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters and other social service agencies.
Marlowe’s group has seen the impact of the tampon shortage firsthand because it has received fewer donations. Between Jan.1 and June 1, I Support The Girls received 218,075 tampons. During the same time period last year, the group received 445,500 tampons.
Marlowe said ensuring students have access to tampons and pads is key to helping them stay in the classroom.
“The bigger picture is that having access to menstrual products for students is intrinsic to their ability to participate fully,” she said.
There is also a growing awareness about barriers people face to accessing and affording menstrual products. A 2021 study commissioned by the period solutions company Thinx and PERIOD, a nonprofit that combats period poverty, found nearly a quarter of students between the ages of 13 and 19 in the U.S. struggled to access menstrual hygiene products. That’s up from 1 in 5 students in 2019 when the survey was first conducted.
White pointed out the number of states requiring public schools to offer free menstrual products is also on the rise.
“And I hope in the near future that Texas will join those other states,” she said.
According to the National Education Association, states that require free period products include California, Illinois, New York and Delaware.
California recently expanded which schools need to make pads and tampons available. A 2017 state law required free menstrual supplies in at least 50% of middle and high school bathrooms where at least 40% of students live in poverty. A law California Governor Gavin Newsom signed last October now requires all public schools to provide period products in bathrooms. The measure applies to secondary schools, community colleges, and the California State University and University of California systems.
Within Texas, other school districts have or plan to start making free menstrual products available to students. Two high school students in North Texas successfully advocated for Fort Worth ISD to begin offering free menstrual pads during the upcoming school year. Dallas ISD students also pushed their district to take similar steps.