Availability of menstrual products in Philly schools still dependent on charity and chance, not policy

A rally was held Tuesday in Harrisburg to promote several bills mandating free availability in bathrooms in public buildings, including schools.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

When cities like Boston and New York passed legislation to provide menstrual products to students in their schools, Lynette Medley, a counselor for young women who charitably delivers such products to Philadelphia schools in her spare time, expected some relief. She is still waiting.

Boston officially started providing the products in school bathrooms this fall through a $100,000 program funded by the city.

“I can see how it has evolved in every other area, in every other state,” said Medley. “But in Philadelphia, it is still not treated as an essential necessity for the well-being of our young people. It is still for charity.”

In fact, menstrual products are free in schools in California, New Hampshire, New York state, Illinois, and cities in Massachusetts including Brookline, Cambridge, and Boston.

Bills that address the issue are also making their way through state legislatures throughout the country. Some remove the tax on menstrual products, and many would provide the products for free in school. Pennsylvania House Bill 1708 would provide them for free in schools; it was referred to the House Education Committee in July.

On Tuesday, supporters of the legislation – one of four bills mandating menstrual products in public spaces in Pennsylvania, including colleges and prisons – held a rally in Harrisburg, Medley among them. State Rep. Maria Collett (D-Bucks), one of the sponsors, noted that Pennsylvania only mandated toilet paper in all public bathrooms in 1921.

On the national level, H.R. 1882 would require schools receiving federal funding to provide free menstrual products, and it would cover the products’ cost under Medicaid.

In May, Philadelphia’s City Council passed a resolution declaring support for the federal legislation and acknowledging the efforts of Medley (file number 190480 on the City Council website). They also established a Menstrual Hygiene Day in May. The resolution, however, did not take any action to require schools to provide menstrual products in a system-wide manner.

In the meantime, the responsibility to provide them still falls on people like Medley and charitable organizations including Philabundance, which is focused on hunger relief. The School District says that Philabundance provided a donation estimated to be nearly a quarter of a million menstrual pads, which are now available to schools in 13 areas of the city.

Others helping to provide menstrual products are Home & School Associations. Some of these groups help the nurse provide the products to students by making donations. Shakeda Gaines, president of the Philadelphia Home & School Council, said, “Many Home & School Associations across the city budget for these kinds of items and provide them to the school nurse or place them in their office.”

If schools are not able to get donations, however, they might not be able to offer pads at all. Other schools use money from the nurse’s discretionary fund, which is limited and used for other supplies as well.

Medley, a small business owner whose organization provides counseling and education for young women, said her work providing these products is taking up more and more of her time. She said more girls are struggling with “period poverty” than she would have expected.

“I would say it takes up about 75% of our time now,” she said. “I am doing about 150 deliveries in a week.”

‘I could not just turn my head’

With piles of tampons all over her office, she spends her time driving around the city with her daughter, delivering what is needed to women and girls. She gets orders from all over the country, including places as far away as Texas and Las Vegas. She will ship the products to a person’s house all that way because she is the only one providing the products for these girls on a sustained basis, she says.

Only after hearing girls talk about their difficulties trying to acquire these products did she start giving them out for free. She said of the students, “They might wear that pad for a day or two because they cannot pay for another one.” She also said that she has heard of kids using socks and newspapers as menstrual products.

“Initially I just started giving them out on a small scale, and then I created a little bank in my office,” Medley said. “I did not choose this journey. I could not just turn my head.”

Some schools will offer menstrual products for their students, but oftentimes this requires a hall pass and a trip to the nurse, and Medley said, an occasional payment, although The Notebook could not find any schools charging students for the products.

“Most of the girls say that we don’t even go to school when it [their period] comes,” Medley said. “They just stay home.”

For that reason, Medley believes that the supplies should not be provided as a charitable endeavor, because charity is not sufficient to provide the products to all students. “I don’t think that people realize or understand the necessity of this. Girls cannot control their menstrual cycles. You cannot turn it off if you want to.”

Even if a school nurse can give out pads, students may not have them at home, creating the situation of being “pad insecure.” Medley said: “The overall issue is that if you are in period poverty and if you are pad insecure, one pad or tampon is not going to be enough. Maybe they will give the students one and, in a perfect world, when they get home they will have access.”

Eileen Duffey-Bernt is the nurse at the Academy at Palumbo, a selective admission school. She said that last year, discretionary funding for nurses jumped to 75 cents per student; in past years it had been as low as 25 cents or 35 cents per student. She spends that money on items such as Tylenol, Ibuprofen, Band-Aids, and sanitary napkins. It is enough, she says, for students who might need a sanitary napkin in school, but it is not enough to provide everything that an impoverished family might need for the month.

“If anyone comes in my office, and they do often, we try to teach our young people to care for these things. We would like them to be prepared, but we do know that the range of people’s ability to pay for things varies. I think that most school nurses are understanding of that. I would never in any way have judgment involved if someone did not have a sanitary napkin,” said Duffey-Bernt.

School nurses step up

“All of the students in all of the schools are provided with the products they need while they are in school, if they need them,” said Duffey-Bernt.

She said she is not aware of any schools that charge students for menstrual products.

There are also difficulties around stigma, where girls might fear coming to the nurse to get products. As an experienced nurse, Duffey-Bernt says, she works to relieve such anxieties: “It is hard to tell who are the people who are not coming and what everyone is thinking. I have been doing this job for 25 years, and my students are very comfortable with coming to me. I think they feel supported in my health center. That is a point of pride for me.

“I hate to think about a family that would be stuck with a small amount of money after they have paid for their housing, and they have $100 left and they have to buy food for their family, and they have three girls. Well, that could become expensive. I have not had that come to my attention in my particular school.”

From a nurse’s perspective, she said, Medley’s work can be a godsend. “I am really thrilled about what she [Medley] is doing because she could drop it off to the nurses and the nurses would say: ‘Great, I know girls who could really use it.’ We nurses work closely with our kids, and we care a lot about them so if something like that came our way, I cannot see a school nurse saying ‘I don’t need your help.’”

When delivering to schools, Medley will bring a whole bin of supplies that costs $275-$300 for her to put together and she will bring $50 bags to individual girls at their homes. “We try to give them three months’ worth,” she said.

In July, the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote an article about Medley and her operation, prompting a surge in requests for menstrual supplies and a proportional boost in offers to help with providing the supplies. She organized a volunteer day and received assistance from church groups.

Medley said she would rather receive donated supplies than cash. She has four drop-off locations: the Office for Engagement for Women in City Hall, State Rep. Brian Sims’ office in Center City, the Free Library’s Parkway Central location, and her office in Mount Airy.

Despite these signs of support, however, there is still stigma around menstruation. Medley said. Some Friends groups that work with schools “are hesitant to get involved and solicit donations. Someone might reach out and, when we go talk to the other people there, they might still be squeamish about it. There are some people who are not willing to address this head-on and have these conversations.”

Even for many of the students, there can be difficulties with asking for help and acquiring information about menstruation. “They didn’t want to go to the doctor, they did not want to talk about it,” said Medley.

In a statement, the School District said: “We know there are female students who must learn good menstrual hygiene. It’s for this reason we teach this topic to girls and, moving forward, will increase training to ensure all girls have the knowledge needed to ensure good menstrual health.”

Medley lamented the reliance on parents and families to provide the most basic school supplies.

“Books, paper, tissue for kids during school, soap– the first day of school, the kids are sent home with a list of things and the parents have to contribute. I think that we should not be accepting this as the norm.”

Duffey-Bernt agrees. “I think that a healthy society cares for people in ways that are publicly supported, publicly funded and ethical.”