Code Red

The Learn with Dignity Act, an Illinois law put into action on Jan. 1, 2018, requires schools to supply free menstrual products to students grades 6-12. The Central Times’ Madeleine Chan and Yoo Young Chun investigate how schools in the Naperville area comply with this act, the stigma around menstruation, and how important free products can be throughout a school day.

Code Red

There’s a certain feeling of anxiety that rushes through students when they realize that their periods have begun but they have no access to a pad or tampon.

“At first, I panic,” senior Hana Hasan said. “Then I’ll take a bunch of toilet paper, ball it up and put it on my underwear.”

If the opportunity arises, students sometimes ask their friends and classmates to lend them a product.

“I ask my friends, but I whisper,” senior Cindy Lo said. “I want to keep it low-key.”

Students often exchange products in whispers and hide them under their clothing to avoid their state of menstruation being known to the public.

“I end up awkwardly shoving my pad up in my sleeve or in my pocket before going to the bathroom,” Hasan said. “I guess it’s something I feel kind of shy about sometimes.”

Shyness about the subject can be seen in everyday language as well.

“Code red”, “Mother Nature”, “Aunt Flow”, “On the Rag” and “Shark Week” are all euphemisms invented within the English language in order to avoid speaking the actual term: period, or menstruation. The monthly process female bodies undergo to rid the uterus of the endometrial lining often involves pain and blood, as well as shame and embarrassment.

English isn’t the only language to avoid the subject. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the International Women’s Health Coalition and Clue, a period tracking app,there are over 5,000 slang terms for periods all over the world. Stigma and reluctance to talk about menstruation exists on a global scale and can lead to repercussions in classrooms not too far from home.

It was reported in the most recent Always Confidence and Puberty Survey that nearly one in five American girls have either left school early or missed the entire day because they lack access to period products.

“It is hard to stay engaged in school when all you can think about is the risk of bleeding through your pants and everyone seeing it when you stand up,” activist Nadya Okamoto wrote in her novel “Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement.” “These worries alone can cause young menstruators to avoid classroom spaces, sometimes altogether.”

The annual average cost of pads is $70, and the average for tampons is $90.

In the 2018 Illinois State Report Card, it was reported that 49.4% of students in Illinois live in low-income households. If half of the number of these students are estimated to experience menstruation, a total of about 494,343 students in the state of Illinois may feel financial burden from purchasing pads or tampons.

Easy Access

The Learn with Dignity Act went into action on Jan. 1, 2018, and was created in order to eliminate this burden for Illinois students during the school day.

The state law requires that “a school district shall make feminine hygiene products available, at no cost to students, in the bathrooms of school buildings.” This includes all public schools serving grades 6-12.

Naperville Central High School has complied with this law since it passed and works with the Building and Grounds Department in order to maintain products for their students every day.

Carrie McFadden, assistant principal for operations, believes the Learn with Dignity Act has been implemented for the better.

“With something like [periods], you want [products] to be convenient,” McFadden said. “I know sometimes that it is an emergency, and being able to walk 10 steps instead of walking down the hall would just be a lot easier on everyone.

McFadden also lent some insight as to how the school budget has adapted for the new law.

“The financing of all of the products for the bathrooms comes out of the Buildings and Grounds Department,” McFadden said. “They’re the ones on the daily basis who are cleaning in there and replenishing the supplies in there.”

Cuauhtemoc Zarate, Naperville Central facility manager, has worked with custodial staff to transition to complying with the Learn With Dignity Act.

“The way we have it set up currently is there is a female custodian who checks in on late arrival days, which is Wednesday,” Zarate said.

The female custodian is in charge of checking the three stories and the flat wing. Because there is only one female staff member during the day, the flat wing is more likely to run out of products.

“In the past, the third shift supervisor used to restock the products,” Zarate said. “When we had to restock the products, there used to be a fee. He would have to be in charge of removing the coins and restocking. Since the [Learn with Dignity Act] came about, we’ve now eliminated the need for him to actually take out the money and restock it. We gave that duty to the female custodian we had on staff.”

Some students are unaware of this process of stocking.

“I wasn’t aware that the dispensers are fully stocked,” Hasan said. “I know there’s products at the nurse’s office, but in my busy schedule I don’t really have time for that.”

Certified school nurse Erica Kelly recognizes that the act is relatively new and that free products are now distributed in the school bathrooms.

“I always thought that students knew they could come [to the nurse’s office] and get some [products],” Kelly said. “From my perspective, I thought they were always available for free since they always have been here.”

The process of stocking products and continuing compliance with the act is an ongoing process that Central is working to constantly improve.

“What I would like to implement is for the second and third shift supervisor to inform their custodians, because there’s no need for money to be handled or anything of that nature, so they can just go in there and verify that the machine is stocked and doesn’t bind up,” Zarate said. “I talked to the female custodian that there were times when the turn mechanism could be jammed and wouldn’t be able to produce other products. What she does is she sets the product on the top to make it accessible for everybody.”

While Central focuses on continuing access for its students, other schools in the area have started becoming compliant as well, one doing so following a particularly strong push from their students.

Metea Valley High School alumna and former Stampede reporter Abbey Malbon spent most of her last semester at school trying to raise awareness about the law and compel the school to be compliant with it.

“In March of last year, I was doing some research for an article that I wanted to write about possibly raising money to put these dispensers in the bathrooms ,and I found out that they’re legally required to be there,” Malbon said. “So after that, I went ahead and published an article but was unable to reach anyone in my district for comment.”

While writing the story, she received pushback from members of her administration regarding the law. In the process of writing a second piece on the subject, she continued to experience difficulty with communication.

“I sort of broke the story at the end of my school year, and I kind of got discouraged by my principal that I really shouldn’t be writing this article because my last one made the school look bad,” Malbon said. “So, after that, I just continued on without their comment, and I reached out to state representatives, students and the Naperville Central vice principal because I knew D203 was in compliance and I published another article.”

It was only until Malbon created a network of peers and spoke at a school board meeting that she was able to start a successful conversation with the school staff.

“We were called MAN (Menstrual Action Network)-kind of an ironic name, ‘man’-but we spoke for about 20 minutes on this issue and why we felt it was important to us,” Malbon said. “After that, local media kind of hopped on to what we were doing and there was a lady with the Naperville Sun that was at the school board meeting. My friend and I were on WGN Radio, and then that day we were called into the office and finally my principal and my dean were willing to talk to us about the law.”

Before her efforts, there were no dispensers in any of the bathrooms at Metea Valley, and students in need of a product were forced to go to the nurse’s office, taking time away from their learning in class and adding to the inconvenience of having a period during the school day.

“We’ve kind of had some sort of inconsistent implementation of the law, like Metea has 17 bathrooms, which includes female bathrooms and gender neutral bathrooms, and my school decided we were going to put products in two of them in one certain tucked away area of the school,” Malbon said. “They were in rubber containers and put above the sinks so they would get wet and people really didn’t know whether they were supposed to be there, or if the students were doing it. There’s this inconsistency with the implementation of this law, [but] the district thinks they’re in compliance.”

Since Malbon published her stories, there have been sightings of dispensers in the bathrooms at Metea Valley, as well as at Waubonsie Valley High School and Neuqua Valley High School. Waubonsie administrators and Metea administrators both declined requests to be interviewed for this story.

For students, this law is a step toward breaking the silence about periods.

“I think this is a great opportunity to talk about menstruation and to talk about the importance of valuing students’ comfort accommodating for their needs,”  Malbon said. “Menstrual products aren’t a luxury, and they should be for free and they should be in bathrooms.”