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Education

Without money for tampons or pads, some St. Louis students miss school

Nearly two-thirds of female students surveyed at Jennings Senior High School said they didn't have enough money to buy tampons or pads during the school year. “We can’t allow this to be a reason for why our girls aren’t here and if it is, we need to remove that barrier," said Cryslynn Billingsley, the school's assistant principal.
Molly Snee
/
NPR
Nearly two-thirds of female students surveyed at Jennings Senior High School in north St. Louis County said they didn't have enough money to buy tampons or pads during the school year. “We can’t allow this to be a reason for why our girls aren’t here and if it is, we need to remove that barrier," said Cryslynn Billingsley, assistant principal.

Assistant principal Cryslynn Billingsley’s office at Jennings Senior High School is like a train station most days, with students constantly coming and going.

Most students at the north St. Louis County public school are from low-income families, and they often come to Billingsley when they need something they can’t afford — including tampons and pads.

More than half of female students surveyed at the school said they didn’t have enough money to buy period products, according to research from St. Louis University. Without access to tampons and pads, students are more likely to miss school. A bill in the Missouri legislature would require school districts to provide free period products, though similar efforts have stalled in previous years.

Though most research on the lack of access to period products focuses on other countries, this is also an issue “right down the street” in St. Louis, Billingsley said.

“It’s a common issue here that girls may not come to school because of their cycle,” she said. “We can’t allow this to be a reason for why our girls aren’t here and if it is, we need to remove that barrier.”

St. Louis University researchers anonymously surveyed more than 100 female students at Jennings Senior High School in February 2020 about their menstrual needs, including whether they had trouble accessing tampons and other products.

Nearly two-thirds said they hadn’t had enough money to purchase period products during the school year.

About 1 in 3 of the survey’s respondents said they had missed school because they didn’t have access to tampons or pads, often at least one day per month. Almost 70% of students said they relied on school employees for period products, including nurses and teachers.

There are no national policies that require schools to provide free period products to students, though more than a half-dozen states have laws mandating it, including Illinois, New York and California.

State Rep. Martha Stevens, D-Boone County, introduced legislation this session that would require school districts to “provide period products in the restrooms for all middle school, junior high, and high school buildings” at no cost to students. A previous Republican-led effort stalled in 2018.

Providing period products to students is a critical first step, said Anne Sebert Kuhlmann, SLU associate professor of behavioral science and health education. But she said school workers may also need to help guide students when it comes to managing their menstruation.

Most students surveyed at Jennings, she said, reported missing school at least one day per month for any reason related to their periods, including pain, cramping and hygiene issues.

“We can't just throw products at this and expect to completely solve the problem,” said Sebert Kuhlmann, a co-author of the study. “It's about helping students learn to manage their periods so they can fully participate in life, not miss school, not miss work, not have to miss extracurricular activities.”

While menstruation carries a deep stigma, Billingsley said she’s seeing small signs of change among students.

“Now, it’s on the table, and we’re talking about it in this school,” she said. “The girls seem to be more open about it. They don’t have an issue coming to my office to say, ‘I need a pad’ or ‘I need some medicine because I’ve got cramps.’ Before, they would have just not come.”

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