Students say Champaign schools fail to provide menstrual products required by law
This audio story was recognized for excellence by the Hearst Awards in 2023, ranking 11th among all audio journalism entires nationwide.
Loreal Allen was not surprised when she went into a bathroom at Central High School in Champaign in late November. Everything was as expected. There was soap, paper towels and a white dispenser attached to the wall with nothing inside of it.
“I am at a dispenser right now, and it currently says empty,” said Allen, a junior at Central High School. “Both of them [pads and tampons] say empty, and I tried flipping it, and nothing came out. So it's as I expected it to be.”
The dispenser attached to the wall of the bathroom is supposed to supply pads and tampons to students. However, Allen and many other students said they rarely find pads and tampons in the bathrooms at school.
Over a year after the law was passed, students in the Champaign Unit 4 School District have said they are still struggling to get access to the products they need.
“Almost every time, it's [the dispenser] been empty,” Allen said.“Because of how many times I’ve been to the bathrooms and there haven’t been any [pads and tampons], I’ve just given up and started bringing my own.”
When pads and tampons are not in the bathrooms, unprepared students struggle to cope. What should’ve been a simple trip to the bathroom becomes a quest to find a friend with products on them – or a trip to the nurse’s office.
Marni Sommer, a Socio-Medical Sciences professor at Columbia University who researches menstruation, said students shouldn’t have to ask anyone for pads and tampons.
“For somebody who just needs a product, having to go to the nurse's office means more time out of the classroom,” Sommer said. “And they may not even be allowed to take as long of a bathroom break as they need to go first to the nurse's office or the admin office to get that product, then go to the bathroom and change and then come back to class.”
Students said they feel uncomfortable asking people for products because of the stigma surrounding periods.
“There's just a really big stigma about periods and tampons. I remember like, every single time I had to go to the bathroom in middle school, I would like roll it, like put it in my sleeve or something,” said Sadie Tsiakals, a student at Centennial High School.
I can be really uncomfortable asking teachers or other staff members for pads and tampons, she said.
Lily Simon, a student at Edison Middle School, said the bathrooms are never stocked, so she keeps menstrual hygiene products in a baggie in her locker.
That means every time she needs a period product, she has to ask her teacher to go to the locker, go to her locker with a hall monitor, return to the classroom to ask the teacher to go to the bathroom and then go to the bathroom.
“It makes me feel kinda sad that you have to go through all of those steps, and it makes me angry that they can’t just fill up the dispensers to make it easier for kids,” Simon said.
Middle and high school students like Simon and Allen have learned how to manage their periods.
Students in elementary school have not, Sommer said.
The average person gets their first period at around 11.9 years old, which is an elementary-school age, she said.
“It may be something that that girl doesn't want to talk about or doesn't want to share with other people and/or is feeling shy about [it] for whatever reason,” she Sommer said. “So the fact that the products are there, she doesn't have to go looking for products, she doesn't have to go to ask anybody.
“They're just right there. It's very empowering and sort of confidence-building.”
Jonathan Skibar, the head of the custodial staff at Barkstall Elementary, said the school installed pad and tampon dispensers at the school during fall break— over a year after the law was in effect.
Multiple parents have reached out to Unit 4 about the problem.
They include Traci Quigg Thomas, the mom of two Franklin Middle School students.
In June, Thomas said she contacted Joshua Monk, the director of facilities and grounds for the Unit 4 school district. Monk is in charge of making sure all the bathrooms are stocked with everything students need.
She received two responses.
The first one came from Monk, who told her the district was working to get the schools in compliance.
She said she then heard from Stacey Moore, Unit 4’s chief communications officer, who said construction and vandalism are to blame for delays. However, Moore said the dispensers would be stocked by the beginning of the 2022 school year.
But Thomas said she noticed that the dispensers were still empty in October. So, she emailed Monk again.
“I reached out to him a month ago, and I said, ‘My children informed me that their school is still not in compliance with this law. Please let me know, when you plan on achieving district-wide compliance,’ and that was a month ago. He never replied,” Thomas said.
In a Dec. 8 email statement, Moore said the district is in compliance with the law. She said Unit 4 conducted a district-wide survey last year to ensure there is access in the bathrooms at every school that teaches 4th through 12th grade.
Even when dispensers are stocked, however, students said products run out too quickly.
Isabella Hernandez, a student at Centennial High School, said some bathrooms have pads and tampons on Monday but will run out by Wednesday.
Some of her peers can’t afford to buy their own products, she said, so they might rely on products provided at school.
“I've seen girls like taking handfuls and putting it into their backpacks so they can take them home,” Hernandez said.
This trend is happening on a national scale.
A 2019 study published in the journal “Obstetrics & Gynecology” reported that 64% of women have struggled to afford pads and tampons at one point in their life, and 21% can’t afford them every month.
However, students said not everyone is taking school-provided pads and tampons out of necessity.
Some students said they noticed the vandalism and people wasting products, saying that people would stick pads on the wall, shove them in the toilets or break the dispensers.
In her reply email to Thomas, Moore, the district spokesperson, referenced a TikTok challenge called “devious licks,” referencing a hashtag that went viral last year in which videos of students ripping soap dispensers and bathroom stall doors at schools gained thousands of likes on social media.
Moore said in the email that the degree of the vandalism was so severe, it delayed the district’s compliance with the law.
Sommer said the vandalism of pad and tampon dispensers is a direct result of a lack of proper education about bodily changes. Having products in the bathrooms is only the first step, she said.
Skibar, the head of custodial staff at Barkstall Elementary, said around half of the products he stocks every week end up being wasted.
“Kids play with the products. I find some of the products in the garbage cans unused,” Skibar said.
To make students more comfortable talking about periods and to prevent them from playing with the products, Sommer said schools need to educate all students — boys and girls — why the products are there. Schools must normalize periods in the bathrooms and in the classroom, Sommer said.
“If they really respect why they're there and people's needs, then it may help to overcome some of what may happen with the product,” she said.
As recently as early December, students said they still noticed empty dispensers at school but have accepted that they just have to bring their own products.
Their parents said they are beyond frustrated with the district’s noncompliance.
“I feel like this law is just basic common sense, but since we don't have basic common sense, it has to be legislated,” Thomas said. “And now that the law is legislated, they aren't even complying with that.
“And it's just, it's so shocking when, in the face of all this, you cannot do the most basic thing to support these little humans that are in our buildings, even if it's legislated.”
Thomas said will keep advocating until the dispensers in the bathrooms of Unit 4 schools provide students with pads and tampons.