Some Jackson County students are missing school because they can't afford period products
The Jackson County Health Department found that most local schools adequately supply period products, but 67% of surveyed staff said they were aware of students missing school because of their period.
An array of menstrual pads, tampons and spare underwear discreetly sit in a cabinet in the Richardson Elementary School’s health room.
Rebecca Litton, a school nurse in the Lee’s Summit School District, says that’s also where she keeps a number of small, colorful bags that could easily be mistaken for pencil pouches. She says that's in case students need to take products home with them.
“Most of the time, I don't ask questions. Most times, I just hand it to them, because I don't want to embarrass them. I don't want them to feel like they can't come to me,” Litton says.
Since the school year began in August, the district has had 1,219 visits to its health rooms for students requesting feminine products.
Teri Hansen, the district’s health services coordinator, says some students come in just because they left their own supplies at home.
But during her time in the district’s schools, Hansen says she had several students who would ask for menstrual products every month because they didn't have supplies at home.
“Some are pretty embarrassed about having to ask for it and then we'll have some that will come in and say I don't have any for tonight,” Hansen says. “And so we send them home with some supplies to get them through the night till the next day and kind of go from there.”
Lacking access to menstrual products is sometimes referred to as "period poverty." A recent briefing on menstrual equity from the Jackson County Health Department said that period poverty, while often considered an issue impacting people in developing nations, also occurs in the United States.
According to the briefing, 40% of surveyed staff at Eastern Jackson County Schools were aware of students that are unable to purchase the menstrual products they need.
MaryAnna Henggeler, a health department program and policy specialist, says that students can miss out on “valuable learning time” without access to these products.
While the survey found that most schools provide an adequate supply of period products, 67% of staff said they were still aware of students missing school because of their period. Of those respondents, 11% reported that students said they missed school because they didn't have enough products.
“If a student doesn't have the products they need and they can't come to school, then that can be an issue where other students are in the classroom learning, and they could be potentially missing multiple days a month even, every year,” Henggeler says.
That’s also a concern at Jennings Senior High School, a public school in St. Louis County. According to a study from St. Louis University, nearly two-thirds of the 100 surveyed students said they didn’t have enough money to buy period products during the school year. About a third said they had missed school because they didn’t have access to such products.
Both surveys follow the introduction of a bill in the Missouri legislature by Missouri Rep. Martha Stevens, a Columbia Democrat, requiring school districts to provide period products for free in restrooms at all middle schools, high schools and charter schools. Similar bills have failed in recent years.
The Jackson County survey found that the majority of students can get supplies by asking a staff member, but more than half of respondents said that period products were not available in their school’s restrooms.
Henggeler says that it’s important that supplies are in school restrooms not only to meet students’ immediate needs, but because of the shame and stigma surrounding periods.
“For whatever reason, if they don't have the products on them, having to go tell somebody that they need a product, unfortunately, it just can be embarrassing, (it) can be anxiety causing for students,” Henggeler says.
A 'game changer'
Anne Sebert Kuhlmann, an associate professor of behavioral science and health education at Saint Louis University, says that while providing products is an important start, it’s not the only solution for students who are missing school because of their period.
She says there needs to be more opportunity for students to get education and information on other menstruation issues, like hygiene, cramps and pain.
The Jackson County Health Department’s survey found that Eastern Jackson County schools provide education on period management and personal hygiene care, but for the majority of respondents that happens only once, in fifth grade.
“You know, just managing personal hygiene during menstruation, so that you can continue with your activities of daily living and continue in participating in everyday activities of life, including going to school,” Sebert Kuhlmann says.
Sebert Kuhlmann says it's also necessary to expand what's considered a basic need to include period products.
The Kansas City-area nonprofit Giving the Basics is trying to do just that. The organization provides menstrual products to 29 local school districts every month, along with other hygiene necessities.
Many Eastern Jackson County schools rely on donations from local organizations. The health department says that donations lessen the cost of these products for school districts, but a reliance on private donations can limit the quantity, types and brands of products.
To alleviate those barriers, the department said statewide policies could direct school districts to include the costs of period products in their own budget.
Teresa Hamilton, president and CEO of Giving the Basics, says that while the period-product legislation is pending, her organization will continue giving students supplies and emotional support.
“You cannot help a child learn if they come to school without that human dignity. They need to be able to have improved health, improved hope and dignity,” Hamilton says. “And you've set that scenario so that before they walk in the door, they're locked and loaded to be so totally successful. Incredible. It's a game changer.”
Meanwhile, Lee’s Summit School District is paying for their period products out of their own budget, with some school nurses even picking up supplies from the store if they need them.
While they could provide period products in their restrooms, school health officials say their students are building connections with their nurses and the health room can serve as a “safety net” for kids.
School nurse Litton says she feels that connection when she’s able to help her students.
“I see confidence as they walk out and then I see them in the hallway and they wave at me, and they just feel like ‘Hey, we're cool,' Litton says. “And it's just kind of like everything feels a little bit better.”