When I was in high school, getting to the bathroom to change my tampon was a highly rehearsed routine. Step one: root around in your backpack until you find one at the bottom of your bag. Discreetly slip it under your sleeve (curse the wrapper for crinkling loudly enough to alert your whole classroom). Pray your teacher lets you go to the bathroom right away, without any paperwork, delays, or demands - no hall passes, no dreaded utterances of “go to the bathroom after class” or “wait till your classmate is back”, no extra scrutiny. It’s an awkward, confusing and sometimes humiliating process: but the difficulty of leaving your classroom with with a tampon or pad isn’t the main problem when it comes to schools and menstruators - it’s just the tip of the metaphorical bloody iceberg.
Together, stigma, lack of accessibility, and a general ignorance around menstruation create a problem that runs deeply through academic institutions. Health classes in the United States offer shoddy information about menstruation: though comprehensive research on the topic is spare, anecdotes from students reveal various failures. Many teachers enforce the gender binary by shepherding off all the boys before sharing any information (both estranging trans and nonbinary menstruators and perpetuating the idea that just because you don’t experience something, you don’t need to know anything about it -- perhaps setting up a generation of clueless boyfriends and fathers to turn into memes). Others only offer biological information - that’s what happened in my school, and while everyone in my seventh grade class knew what a uterine lining was, no one knew how to actually insert a tampon. I still remember how common it was to enter the middle school bathroom and witness a gaggle of girls coach their terrified friend through putting in a tampon for the first time. Other schools opt to make health education, as a whole, optional: A Yahoo article on the subject highlights a 2014 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey that revealed that in the US, lessons about human development and puberty are mandatory in only 21% of elementary schools, under half of middle schools, and 66% of high schools. Menstruation is a blind spot in our education, and when educators fail to normalize the monthly experience of half of the human population, they open the door to further stigmatization.
Once the stigma has permeated, periods are seen as taboo, secret, and shameful: thus, oftentimes, providing free products for menstruators is, at best, forgotten about, and at worst, openly rejected. Only three states in the U.S require schools to provide products - so when periods come unexpectedly in the other forty-seven, students either have to hope their friends have an available supply, use toilet paper or paper towels as makeshift pads, or leave school altogether. Students experiencing financial and housing insecurity who can’t afford the extra cost of period products (Jezebel approximates tampons, maxi pads, and PMS relief products together can run up to 141.51 per year) are also forced to face those three unsavory choices. Studies conducted by Always in 2018 surveyed menstruators aged 16-24 in the United States and Canada and found that, respectively, 1 in every 5 and 1 in every 7 menstruators either left school early or missed school entirely when they didn’t have adequate supplies.
Finally, schools fail when administrators’ ignorance about menstruation bars them from making beneficial policy changes. What happens when a student is experiencing cramps from PMS or endometriosis? Very little. In a Vice article, Chloe Pudwill, a 25 year old from San Francisco diagnosed with the latter, recalls experiencing excruciating pain during the school day and a “useless trip” she took down to the nurse’s office: “The nurse left the room and returned with the only relief she could offer: a single ibuprofen pill.” Period pain is largely represented as an excuse delinquent (or Clueless) girls skipping gym class may employ. While countries like Italy, Zambia, South Korea, and Indonesia offer paid menstrual leave to workers, neither the United States nor their neighbors to the North offer the same to folks in the workforce, much less to students. Despite the fact that cramps from PMS can be brutal, and that for the 6.5 million menstruators in the U.S and 89 million worldwide diagnosed with endometriosis, the pain can be so bad the Endometriosis Association stresses (in bold and italic on it’s Teen Outreach page) that it forces many to “discontinue normal activities, miss school or even drop out as a result of their pain, which impacts their academic lives, their future, their families and their communities”, very few schools present options to miss class without falling behind.
It seems logical that if so many students’ grades and comfort levels are put at risk, school officials would work for a change. Yet, no headlines reporting success stories come up when you search “period leave United States” or “period leave Canada” - only pieces posing hypothetical scenarios or sharing the devastating effects of leaving period poverty unchecked. The only massive win to be reported is in British Columbia, where Education Minister Rob Fleming allocated $300,00 to fight period poverty, requiring every school in the province to supply products by the end of 2019. If you want to effect change on a local level, start using your voice!
Perhaps one of the greatest and least-discussed example of how schools fail young menstruators is that they continue to perpetuate a culture where curiosity and conversations around periods are stifled and mocked. Challenge the stigma, advocate for bathrooms to provide menstrual products through petitions, or raise the money yourself (never underestimate the power of a well-stocked bake sale), talk to your school board, and support candidates that seek to pass beneficial legislation.