Public Schools

Bay Area teenager taking on ‘period poverty’ in schools

Written by Mamie M. Arndt

One of Amanda Safi’s classmates got her period right before a physics exam. She excused herself to the bathroom, realized she had no menstrual products on hand and returned to class. She was unable to focus on her test as blood seeped through her pants.

Another student got her period during soccer practice. No one on the team had any spare pads or tampons, and the bathrooms did not stock them. She wrapped toilet paper around her underwear and went back to the field.

For years, Safi, a recent graduate of Aragon High School in San Mateo, collected stories like these from her peers before deciding to take action to address the scarcity of menstrual products in her school.

“Every time I would hear one of these stories, my heart would ache because it usually resulted in a menstruator being forced to use unsanitary means, missing excessive class time or practice, or leaving school entirely,” Safi said. “Our male counterparts who don’t menstruate are getting a head start on that test or that lesson in class, while we have to go deal with our biology.”

It’s an issue exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, and one that’s falling hardest on poorer students: Schools and community resource centers where lower-income students could get period products for free or at a reduced cost have been closed for months.

Safi, now a freshman at UC Santa Cruz, created the Period Equity Project, an initiative seeking to provide pads and tampons to students who can’t afford them during the pandemic. Next month, San Mateo County officials will vote on a proposal to award Safi’s project $20,000 to buy menstrual products for those in need.

The program is intended to target low-income students in two schools: San Mateo High School and Jefferson High School in Daly City, but the products will be made available to anyone who needs them while schools are closed.

But Safi doesn’t want to stop at providing assistance during the pandemic. The project also seeks to install free menstrual-product dispensers in girls’ and gender-neutral bathrooms in both schools when they resume in-person instruction, which is currently slated for fall. Both schools are offering remote learning, but provide free lunches on weekday afternoons. Safi hopes to soon add essential menstrual products to the schools’ offerings.

“Period products are just as important as toilet paper, but our government and our schools still do not see our biology as worth the investment,” Safi said. “We see toilet paper in bathrooms provided for free, but we don’t see period products in bathrooms, even though menstruation is necessary.”

The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors will meet Feb. 9 to discuss allocating $20,000 to start the initiative at San Mateo High School. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, will provide an initial donation of $5,000 from her campaign funds to start the pilot program at Jefferson High School.

The schools were identified as having high numbers of low-income and underserved student populations and were chosen as the proving grounds for the two-year pilot, which is slated to begin in mid-February and intended to increase girls’ school attendance and reduce the stigma of menstruation.

That funding is enough to provide 1,500 tampons, pads and other products for the spring semester and an additional 1,000 for the fall term. The funding would also purchase dispensers, disposal units and other necessary supplies. The program is expected to cost around $14,000 for both schools for two years.

“I can guarantee that if men had periods, we would not be charging them for menstrual products,” Speier said. “It’s truly outrageous, and I would like to see the whole system changed.”

The pilot is modeled after a 2016 New York City public schools program that put free menstrual products in bathrooms and saw a 2.4% increase in attendance among girls six months after launching. Speier said data will be gathered from the San Mateo pilot to determine if attendance rates among girls increase, which could serve as the basis for extending the initiative to a countywide or state level.

“We hope that we make it something that’s similar to restocking toilet paper and soap in dispensers,” said Don Scatena, the director of student services at the San Mateo Union High School District. “We don’t want to make it a special add-on. We want to make it a part of the culture and climate of our schools.”

A spokeswoman from the Jefferson Union High School District was unavailable to comment on the initiative.

In a survey of her classmates, Safi found that many of her peers missed class or school activities because period products were not easily accessible. Safi’s informal survey of her classmates matches a 2017 nationwide study conducted by Always, a major manufacturer of feminine hygiene products, which found that 1 in 5 girls has missed school because they lacked access to menstrual products.

Since 2018, California law has required public middle schools and high schools with at least a 40% low-income population to stock free feminine hygiene products in at least half of its bathrooms. Jefferson High School, one of the two schools in the pilot program, meets that requirement and stocks some of its bathrooms with menstrual-product dispensers. With the new funding, the school would be able to stock all girls’ bathrooms and gender-neutral bathrooms with period products, according to Safi’s proposal.

In all of San Mateo County, 32.7% of the student-age population is low-income, according to state data, meaning most schools fall below the state threshold for stocking period products.

Michela Bedard, the executive director of national nonprofit group Period, said the closure of public places, such as schools, libraries and community centers, during the pandemic was a “double whammy” for people who had been suffering from period poverty — inadequate access to menstrual products and education.

“When we think of essential goods, we think of food, we think of shelter. We might even think of some hygiene supplies, but very rarely do we think of menstrual items,” Bedard said.

Period saw requests for menstrual products go up tenfold immediately after states began issuing pandemic shutdown orders. In 2020, Period gave away millions of products — a thirtyfold increase from the previous year. “That number was staggering even to us, and we are already familiar with how deep period poverty is in this country,” Bedard said.

Across the country, more than a dozen state legislatures introduced bills last year that would require public schools to stock free menstrual products in bathrooms. Last year, Scottish officials passed legislation mandating that free period products be made available to anyone who needs them.

Safi began organizing in San Mateo, building support at her school before taking a proposal to her principal. Safi had received approval from her principal to pursue the pilot shortly before the pandemic forced all schools into remote instruction in March, putting the project on hold.

Safi signed up for some of Period’s training sessions where she learned how to organize demonstrations and write to government officials. The organization then sent her 11,000 period products that Safi donated to shelters in her community.

That summer, she reached out to several officials in San Mateo County with her proposal, which caught the attention of Speier and San Mateo County Supervisor Carole Groom.

“When Amanda came to our office, we were very intrigued about her story and what young ladies go through in high school. We are happy to support this cause,” Groom said in an email statement.

“We are at a tipping point in period poverty in this country, and we have young people who are braver and not afraid of stigma or taboo to talk about these topics,” Bedard said. “The more youth activists take it up, the more elected officials and superintendents can take this seriously, and the faster we’re going to get this done.”

Vanessa Arredondo is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @v_anana

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Mamie M. Arndt