Virginia inches closer to ‘menstrual equity’ with legislation requiring schools to provide products

By: - February 19, 2020 12:02 am

Capitol Square from the air. Photo by Ned Oliver.

Virginia has yet to eliminate sales tax on pads and tampons, which many advocates consider the Holy Grail of “menstrual equity.”

But it’s inching closer with legislation that requires public schools to provide free menstrual supplies. Under an amended version of the bill, which cleared the House 60-39 on Feb. 4 and passed the Senate in a 39-1 vote on Monday, local school boards would be required to stock free pads or tampons in public school bathrooms for fifth through 12th graders.

Supporters say the legislation goes a long way in reducing the stigma for students who get their periods at school. And while both the House and Senate bills faced sharp questioning in committee — especially when it came to paying for the supplies — there was also broad bipartisan support from legislators who described it as a commonsense measure.

“We already provide toilet paper,” said Del. John Avoli, R-Staunton, a former high school principal. “I think it’s a necessity for young females to have these supplies in restrooms, just for the convenience and the sake of distance.”

Gov. Ralph Northam will “carefully review” the bill when it crosses his desk, according to spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky. If he signs it, Virginia would become the fifth state in the U.S. to require free pads and tampons in schools.

The legislation is part of a nationwide push to view period supplies as a basic necessity, said Holly Siebold, the founder and executive director of a nonprofit called BRAWS (Bringing Resources to Aid Women’s Shelters). Virginia, like many states, doesn’t exempt pads and tampons from state and local sales tax as it does for other medical supplies — including prescription drugs such as Viagra, Siebold pointed out.

Lawmakers voted last year to reduce taxes on menstrual supplies from 5.3 to 2.5 percent. Legislation proposed this year to totally eliminate the tax passed the Senate, but the House voted down similar legislation, making passage unlikely this year unless budget negotiators agree to account for an anticipated $1.08 million in lost tax revenue by fiscal year 2026.

Advocates, many of whom have joined to form the Virginia Menstrual Equity Coalition, view the school legislation as a step in the right direction.

The group’s overarching goal is to increase access to period supplies across the state, including in shelters, schools and correctional facilities. And while opponents of the bill argue that school nurses already stock pads and tampons, Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax — who sponsored the bill in the House — said it created an unnecessary barrier by forcing students to visit the nurse whenever they needed supplies.

“Some students don’t want to have to go all the way to see a nurse for something that’s not a medical situation,” he said. “And especially when you’re talking about younger kids — who might not know when they’re going to get their periods — it can be embarrassing for them to have to go to the nurse or talk to a teacher about it.”

Advocates also cite recent data that link menstrual supplies to school attendance. A survey of 693 women who attended U.S. high schools found that nearly 24% left school early due to a lack of access to feminine hygiene products. Nearly 13% reported that they missed school when they were on their period and couldn’t access supplies.

Concerns over equity have led some Virginia schools to launch their own pilot programs. Students at Justice High School in Fairfax County started stocking the women’s bathrooms with free pads and tampons in 2018.

The next year, at-large school board member Karen Keys-Gamarra convinced the entire district to launch a wider initiative, dedicating $200,000 to install pad and tampon dispensers at 37 schools. “I wanted us to examine whether we had a policy that hindered education for a certain group of students,” she said.

It’s still unclear whether the law will increase the costs of menstrual supplies for Virginia school districts beyond the cost of the dispensers. Most already provide pads and tampons in school nurses’ offices. Educators generally don’t appreciate unfunded mandates, said Keith Perrigan, president of the state’s Coalition of Small and Rural Schools, but he didn’t expect the bill to have much of an effect on his own district in Bristol.

Still, some legislators balked at the idea of requiring schools to provide menstrual products without adding additional state aid. Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg — the only senator to vote against the bill — told Keam he had been concerned about the financial impacts of the bill since he first reviewed the legislation.

“My concern was the cost to the school system,” he said last week in a Senate committee hearing. Other lawmakers have raised similar concerns that students would waste and misuse the supplies — including Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, who spent part of a House hearing reading a letter from a middle school nurse in her district.

“‘Seriously, I have seen some creative toilet paper use over the last eight years,’” Coyner read. “‘And I can only imagine the sanitary napkin art to come.’”

Siebold called concern over misuse just another example of girls and boys being treated differently in schools.

“They make sure they have what boys need in the bathroom, but with girls, they don’t,” she said. “You’re not going to send kids to the clinic every time they need to poop because you’re afraid they’re going to misuse the toilet paper. It’s a necessity. It’s a basic need. That’s it.”

“That’s why it’s named the Dignity Act,” Siebold said. “Because it’s bringing dignity to women instead of punishing them for having a period.”

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.