Statement from Holly Seibold, Founder and Executive Director, BRAWS
Re: FCPS Budget & Menstrual Supply Pilot Program
Last week, the Fairfax County School Board passed the 2019-2020 school year budget. Included in the proposal was an amendment allocating $200,000 to pilot a menstrual supply program in FCPS schools. To view the board discussion, click here and begin watching at the 3:12:50 mark.
Nationally, it is estimated nearly one in five students report missing school and class due to a lack of affordability and access to menstrual supplies. Given that nearly 30% of students in FCPS qualify for free or reduced-price meals (approximately 50,000 students), this funding is a welcomed first step by the FCPS School Board to internally address this problem within FCPS schools. This program will lead to the installation of dispensers and pads in designated school restrooms. I applaud School Board Member-at-Large Karen Keys-Gamarra for leading this effort!
The benefits of this program will be tremendous. We know that when students have access to menstrual supplies in restrooms, they:
- Go to school when they are expecting or experiencing their period;
- Stay in class and perform better academically, as opposed to navigating the complex system of school protocols;
- Experience less "accidents," allowing students to stay in school, as opposed to going home mid-day;
- Do not contact their parents, especially those who work far from where they live, to leave work mid-day to pick them up from school;
- Feel confident and safe, knowing that they have unobstructed access to menstrual supplies. The stress and anxiety of having to find a pad, dissipates - allowing them to instead focus their attention on their education;
- Allow the perpetual stigma and fear that is associated with periods to decrease - ending a generational problem that has long term health consequences.
Because of these proven positive outcomes, it is absolutely critical that menstrual supplies are placed in accessible locations - so students can manage their menstrual needs and return to the classroom. This pilot program will, in fact, rectify a massive inequity in our public school system and we look forward to monitoring the results!
Fairfax County is the latest jurisdiction to mandate installations and/or allocate funding for menstrual supplies in bathrooms. Over the last few years, California, Illinois, New York, and New Hampshire passed legislation that received widespread bi-partisan support. Many cities and counties throughout the nation, including Nashville and Boston, have also launched, or are in the process of rolling out similar programs. Last month, PBS released this short news segment highlighting how access to period products in Providence, Rhode Island public schools has proven to benefit students in multiple ways.
As a resident of Fairfax County, I am thrilled that FCPS, in a vote of 10 (McElveen, Moon, Keys-Gamarra, McLaughlin, Strauss, Hynes, Derenak Kaufax, Evans, Corbett Sanders, Palchik) to 2 (Schultz and Wilson), demonstrated their leadership on this issue and, as a result, provided an opportunity for FCPS students to access their education without menstrual barriers. However, I am extremely disappointed that one of our FCPS School Board members, Elizabeth Schultz, representative of the Springfield District, issued this offensive statement mocking the Board’s decision. As you can see, her re-election tagline reads, "Your Voice for Common Sense Leadership;" however, it baffles me that her own words exemplify everything EXCEPT common sense! I cannot think of anything more practical than placing menstrual supplies in the actual place where they are needed - the bathroom!
Ms. Schultz writes:
"Unless you watch it, you wouldn't believe it. The Fairfax County School Board spent a full hour debating multiple Motions to spend "year end money" (your taxpayer money) to start a pilot program to give away free tampons and sanitary pads in 12 schools, six of them elementary schools.
The incredible thing (well, there are so many...) is that FCPS already gives away free supplies in school clinics! Yet, the free supplies to help out young ladies are not free, close enough. The trip to the clinic was dubbed "The Walk of Shame" - an entirely different, immodest meaning was attributed to girls simply accessing supplies in a school clinic.
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During the one-hour long Board debate on (brace yourself) "International Menstrual Equity", free menstrual supplies was cited as a need "to improve student achievement". Lack of attendance was blamed on the lack of supplies - the same supplies already offered for free in the clinics.
Nowhere did the Board discuss working to build self-sufficient, resilient young ladies to become proud. contributing and resilient young women in civil society. Nor did we discuss accessing community groups who may be interested in providing support to particular schools with greater need or even applying for grants.
Without explanation, for the basis of selection, 12 schools were listed for the pilot, with six elementary schools among them. Had parents and PTA's been engaged on the subject of free dispensing machines in elementary bathrooms across the county, accessible to students in the youngest elementary grades? No.
Had information been provided about past vandalism and pranks with supplies which led to offering items in the clinic in the first place? No, of course not.
In fact, not one piece of data was provided about the usage of the existing supplies already provided, absentee rates, student achievement data - nothing. Yet, the Board voted 10-2 to spend $200,000 to pilot a program to an undefined group of schools to provide what is already available for free. As I noted during the meeting, this is only the start. The bill will never be less; it will only go up from this point forward.
Focusing on the wrong things, spending taxpayer money without discretion and keeping parents at bay from key matters involving their children's education and time at school."
Ms. Schultz outlines several reasons she opposes the School Board’s decision. Let’s unpack her logic. First, Ms. Schultz objects to menstrual supplies in school bathrooms because “FCPS already gives away free supplies in school clinics.” What Ms. Schultz fails to mention - even after testimony from parents and students - is that there are a number of reasons students cannot/will not visit the clinic during the school day.
Last year, BRAWS worked with students in the Justice High School GirlUp program to collect data as to why students do not access supplies in school clinics. I have included a few of the responses below:
-”I felt uncomfortable and too shy to ask”
-”I would be embarrassed because I was shy and I they wouldn't understand what I was going through.”
-”Periods generally aren’t a socially acceptable topic to discuss with your teacher.”
-“It’s a really personal subject to talk about with a person that I’m not comfortable with.
-”It’s just awkward asking a male to get a pad or just in general, I don’t feel uncomfortable telling people.”
-”I felt uncomfortable when [the teacher] asked what was my purpose for going”
-”If it was a male maybe he would think it’s gross or judge me”
-”Because I thought I was so stupid to forget my pad or tampon.”
-”Because it is generally not talked about in general, and it seems as if we should always keep it to ourselves”
You can read the full list of response here.
In addition to personal and emotional reasons, Ms. Schultz fails to recognize that our school structure, culture and embedded policies unknowingly places extra burdens on students’ ability to access the clinic. Trailers, short transition times, long walking distances, and classroom protocols are just a few examples of institutional hurdles that discourage clinic use. As one FCPS high school student writes, “Getting my period in high school can be both embarrassing and sometimes even traumatic. Luckily, most times I've gotten my period have been outside of school, but in those times I have still had to ask a friend for a pad or tampon, because I wasn't sure that the school nurse's supply would fit my body type (and it takes less time to ask a friend in class then having to leave class). There have been a few times since getting my period where I have gotten my period at school and haven't had a way to manage it. My freshman year (2017-2018), I got my period during an SOL. I couldn't get up and get a pad from my backpack because we weren't aloud to access our backpacks during the test, and I was too embarrassed to explain myself to a teacher. So, I sat there and finished the test, and when I was done I called my mom and she came to pick me up. The experience was traumatizing, because I feared that people had seen blood through my clothing.”
However, contrary to Ms. Schultz’s proclamation, an arrival in the school clinic does not necessarily symbolize menstrual bliss, either. Once in the clinic, students are subjected to a whole new set of additional obstacles.
-”I don’t want to ask in front of other people and the pads at the clinic are to big and not comfortable, and don’t work well and they don’t have tampons” - FCPS student
-”The nurse’s office is very public, which makes it even more embarrassing.” - FCPS student
First, those who need tampons are, frankly, out of luck. Tampons are not offered in any FCPS school at any time - inconsistent to what Ms. Schultz alleges. FCPS has stated that for liability and safety purposes, pads are the ONLY period supply allowed to be distributed.
Second, pads are inconsistently provided free of charge throughout county schools - opposed to what Ms. Schultz would have you believe. We know this to be true because students were being charged for the products - just this past year. We even discovered that students were being debited for the products BRAWS donated to FCPS - which we intended to be distributed to students free of charge.
Finally, it is reckless for a School Board member to state that pads are freely accessible in clinic bathrooms. FCPS students report having to wait in long lines and experience a complex sign in and check out procedure - just to access a pad from the nurse. This delay may seem insignificant to Ms. Schultz, but for a 13-year old girl, bleeding through her pants while waiting in line (missing class all the while), and having to embarrassingly sign out a pad - sometimes from a male clinic aide - I can assure you, it is traumatizing. So mordifying, in fact, that the next month she decides instead to not go to school during the 5 days of her period in fear of having to relive this situation.
As one student explains, “I can run to the closest bathroom and put a free pad on. And having them in the bathroom is a lot better than running all the way down to the clinic because by then I have had enough blood to stain my pants.”
Another student discloses, “I hated having to walk all the way to the clinic’s office just to get a pad. My class could be in the E hallway and by the time I’d get to the clinic a lot of blood would have already come down on my underwear. It was also uncomfortable to ask the clinic for a pad, I usually don’t get embarrassed but this was pretty embarrassing since our nurse is a male.”
I have compiled a list comments from FCPS students. As you read, please notice the courage and determination of the students to persevere through the school day, despite the pain and fear caused by their periods. Ms. Schultz is outright wrong to suggest that our students are not resilient nor self-sufficient because they need help obtaining basic necessities in school. To suggest otherwise is inaccurate, hurtful, and insulting to the children Ms. Schultz was elected to serve. Students DO desire to have independence, freedom, and opportunity - and not be restricted by their inability to access menstrual supplies. However, they cannot experience such goals, nor be contributing members of society, if our schools present multiple obstacles to their access. It is the role of Ms. Schultz, and the other members of the board, to ensure that these barriers are removed.
Ms. Schultz also argues that “not one piece of data was provided…Yet, the board voted 10-2 to spend $200,000 to pilot a program to an undefined group of schools to provide what is already available for free.” Ms. Schultz is very much aware that a report from the the FCPS Superintendent’s office, under the leadership of Ms. Teresa L. Johnson, Assistant Superintendent for Special Services, was submitted in April 2019, after being requested by the school board last November. Regarding the cost, the $200,000 price tag- a fraction of a 3 billion dollar budget - is simply an estimation, as it is unknown how much the cost will be in total, since it is based on usage (and no one fully knows yet the extent of the problem). The pilot program will allow the school district to measure the costs and determine a more accurate number.
Perhaps if Ms. Schultz fully understood how that number was derived, she would have a better grasp on the impact of the spending. According to the Superintendent's report, “the Department of Social Services worked collaboratively with Facilities Services to estimate costs associated with the installation of receptacles and dispensers in restroom stalls for all existing schools.” Here is what was determined:
-Dispenser installation: Unit cost: $358.99 and hourly rate: $49.00 for a total cost per dispenser: $407.99
-The pilot program requests 12 schools participate. However, If ALL schools receive dispensers in every bathroom, the one time purchase and installation cost would be:
Elementary - $395,850
Middle - $113,100
High School/ Secondary - $235,625
*The report points out that the dispenser price estimates exclude the cost of menstrual supplies, waste receptacles, and bags for waste receptacles.
-The Superintendent's Office estimates that the minimum recurring cost for menstrual supplies would be $45,000-$55,000 per year, depending on usage, and if the program is fully implemented in all schools. However, let’s remember that there has always been a line item in the budget for clinic pads. This pilot program simply shifts the distribution to the bathrooms - and only at the proposed 12 schools.
-The report details the workload impact on custodial staff below. This includes refilling pads dispensers and changing waste receptacles:
Perhaps, to ease Ms. Schultz’s concerns, she can advocate to reallocate the time custodians spend refilling toilet paper? Or soap? Or paper towel rolls? Perhaps she can demand that instead we ask students to bring their own towels so that custodians could use their time on the period supplies? After all, drying your hands is a choice - getting your period is not.
It is worrisome that Ms. Schultz’s opposes funding that includes the cost of custodians changing waste receptacles and the purchase of receptacle bags (according to the report, this would be an additional $12,096/year). Even if FCPS does not distribute pads via dispensers, 50% of the student population between the ages of 8-18 STILL needs pads and tampons each month to attend school and therefore are ALREADY currently using the receptacles. The question I have to ask is: where would Ms. Schultz like for students to privately dispose of their products in a dignified and healthy manner if she is not willing to spend money on custodial fees and receptacle bags?
Unlike Ms. Schultz’s opinion, I do believe the School Board is, in fact, focusing on the RIGHT things in this case and spending taxpayer money WITH discretion. I cannot imagine there is a parent in a “civilized society” who would have issue with this $200,000 being used in a way to keep kids in school, healthy, clean and dignified.
Alternatively, Ms. Schultz suggests we instead seek “community groups” or “applying for grant funding” to fill this need. She also remarks that parents and PTAs have not been engaged on the subject. Nothing could be further from the truth. BRAWS, for example, as a "community group" has been providing support to FCPS for the last 4 years, particularly to schools with the greatest need. Our funding comes from individual community donors and grants. BRAWS collaborates with school staff, parent volunteers and PTA organizations to ensure that students have access to menstrual supplies. However, while this has been effective for the time being, local community groups, generous parents and supportive PTAs are not adequate substitutes for long term, permanent solutions. We must have real, sustainable change that address absenteeism and achievement gap - and the School Board, in collaboration with FCPS administrative staff, are the ones who can make this happen. Programs such as this FCPS pilot program, and the funds budgeted for it, are exactly the "common sense" solution that we need from our leadership.
Ms. Schultz also imposes the fear of potential vandalism and “pranks with supplies” if dispensers are placed in school bathrooms - alleging a history of this issue in FCPS and the removal of dispensers in a neighboring county, Stafford County. First, we recommended dispensers, as opposed to bins, to prevent the potential of misuse. This suggestion specifically appeals to those in leadership who are concerned that too many products will be used by students (side note - can you imagine rationing toilet paper in school for those who need it?). At any rate, the dispensers serve as a deterrent - forcing students to push a button to dispenses products individually after a timed delay. In contrast, some fear that the dispensers are too expensive and will be vandalized, so we should not install them in bathrooms. I find both arguments infuriating as they are just more of the same excuses. According to many decision makers like Ms. Schultz, If we place the dispensers in the bathrooms, they will be vandalized. If we distribute pads without dispensers, there will be misuse. Both arguments create a no-win situation, and the students who are the greatest in need suffer the most.
It is also misleading to present this argument with very little evidence. BRAWS and our partners have piloted several dispenser programs throughout Virginia - Manassas Park, Charlottesville, Norfolk, Richmond, Virginia Beach - and have not experienced the type of misuse, vandalism and pranks that Ms. Schultz describes. Her attempt to trigger fear in our community by implying that really bad things will happen if we install dispensers in bathrooms is irresponsible and ill-considered. Unfortunately, the use of fear tactics to suppress marginalized populations is not new, and historically we have seen those in power, like Ms. Schultz, use this tactic to persuade and influence followers.
The reality is that students in Ms. Schultz’s own district ARE, in fact, missing school because of their period - and they can no longer be ignored and silenced to keep others comfortable. Ms. Schultz’s time would be better spent leading with “common sense” solutions on real issues that affect the daily lives of our students, such as this - instead of humiliating those who want real change. Let’s remember - Ms. Schultz is an official who was elected to be the voice for those unable to speak for themselves. Instead she chooses to dismiss and shame the needs of our most vulnerable children. Her behavior is shameful, and it should not be tolerated on our School Board or anywhere in our community.
Ms. Shultz professed in the School Board meeting last week, and in this recent statement that "The Board not only went off-roading, they did it in a Prius - and got stuck."
I would argue that It is Ms. Schultz who went off-roading, not the Board. And she did it in a bus, throwing FCPS students under it along the way.