Opinion: It’s time for the Berkeley school district to stock its bathrooms with free menstrual products

Some schools are complying with the new law to stock these products, some schools are not. But all middle and high schools should offer free tampons and pads as a courtesy.

We all know this public bathroom moment: you’re sitting in the stall, you reach for the toilet paper, and the dispenser is empty. Now you have a couple options. You can shout from the stall and hope a stranger passes you some toilet paper, or you can awkwardly pull up your pants and try to find some toilet paper in another stall.

Though unpleasant, this scenario is a lot better than what girls go through when they unexpectedly get their periods at school. A national study of women in the U.S. showed that 86% have started their period unexpectedly without the supplies they need. Unfortunately, pads and tampons are scarcer on school campuses than toilet paper, and because of a history of shaming women about their periods, many girls feel uncomfortable asking their peers for supplies. Sometimes, there’s no one else in the bathroom at the time, and in that case, there are two options: go to class and bleed through your clothes (which is humiliating), or ditch school and find a tampon somewhere.

Nobody would disagree that school bathrooms need to stock products as necessary as toilet paper, soap, and paper towels and that a failure to do so imposes barriers to learning. A search for a pad or tampon can cause a student to lose valuable class time or suffer extreme embarrassment. We don’t walk around with tampons in our back pockets. Even if we come to school completely prepared, our access only extends as far as where our backpacks are. If a girl leaves class to go to the bathroom and discovers she has her period, she will likely not have anything with her and would have to return to class to grab her bag and then go back to the bathroom. Teachers don’t let you do that. (You can read more testimonials here.)

This problem has a simple solution. Stock school bathrooms with free pads and tampons.

Legislators are starting to wake up to this issue, maybe because more women are getting elected. New York City now requires schools, jails, and homeless shelters to stock bathrooms with free menstrual products. Illinois has the same law for schools. The state of California agrees that free pads and tampons would help a lot of students, in particular, those who have trouble paying for them. For this reason, Assembly Bill No. 10 was signed into law in October. State law now requires that any secondary school in California that meets the 40% pupil poverty threshold stock half its bathrooms with free pads and tampons.

Longfellow Middle School and Berkeley Technology Academy (BTA) meet the poverty threshold but do not stock those products. They are currently not in compliance with this law.

Neither Willard Middle School nor King Middle School has readily-available tampons or pads, although they are not legally required to since they don’t meet the 40% pupil poverty rate.

Berkeley High doesn’t meet the pupil poverty rate, but it has taken an enlightened approach to the issue. Last February, I ran for junior class vice president with the promise of bringing free menstrual products to Berkeley High. I won the election and began working on that promise with Principal Erin Schweng. She was able to get six pad and tampon dispensers installed in bathrooms by the start of this school year.

The new California law is a great start.  And girls at Berkeley High should be grateful for Principal Schweng’s responsiveness to this need. But BUSD needs a policy that requires free pad and tampon machines in all secondary school bathrooms, and it needs to make sure that those machines are regularly stocked. This is a simple and relatively inexpensive way to remove a barrier to success for thousands of female students in the district.

Rachel Alper is a junior at Berkeley High School.