State Rep. Denise Tepler, D-Topsham Maine House Democrats

Maine legislators heard testimony this week in favor of a bill that would require Maine’s schools to provide free and easily accessible menstrual products.

“It isn’t only an issue of fairness or even of affordability,” Grace Leavitt, president of the Maine Education Association, said. “Having access to menstrual products can help to positively impact a girl’s confidence and thus even affect her future.”

Advocates told the Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs that many youngsters struggle to pay for sanitary products such as tampons and pads. As many as one in four have missed classes as a result, they said.

But for many of those testifying, it’s also an issue of equity.

“Half of the population get their period, and so we should at least be able to supply items to help them,” said 11-year-old Astrid Whitton, a South Portland sixth-grader.

The bill’s chief sponsor, state Rep. Denise Tepler, a Topsham Democrat, said menstruation is “a healthy and normative bodily function” that society too often treats “as shameful and embarrassing — a fact of life that must be kept secret.”

“As a state and country, we need to be taking steps to end the secrecy and stigma that surrounds menstruation,” Nicole Clegg, senior vice president of public affairs at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, said.

“The simple fact is that half of the population has a period,” Clegg said. “It’s a normal part of people’s lives and managing a period shouldn’t be a source of stress.”

Changing old views, Tepler said, is one reason why youngsters in school “should have unfettered access to menstrual products in school bathrooms” the same way toilet paper is available to everyone.

The bill would require schools that serve students in grades six to 12 to make menstrual products available at no cost in school bathrooms. After urging from state Rep. Heidi Sampson, an Alfred Republican, lawmakers said they may lower the grade level in recognition that many fourth and fifth graders need access as well.

As it is now, many bathrooms offer sanitary items for sale. A number of schools also have them available for free from the school nurse’s office.

But both of those options fall short of what’s needed, advocates said.

Madeline Welch, a University of New England student who lives in Denmark, told legislators that “one of the worst realizations you can have” as a young person in school “is that you have started your period before you were expecting to, or you are experiencing a heavy flow, and that you have bled through the back of your clothes.”

“You can cover up the stains by tying your sweatshirt or sweater around your waist, but that’s only a temporary fix,” Welch said. “You rush to the bathroom, and if you’re lucky, you have a spare pad or tampon in your bag.”

If there are no sanitary products, or they’re too costly, students “often resort to using toilet paper,” Welch said. “This is something I myself have had to do many times.”

“It provides very minimal help and requires multiple trips back to the bathroom. This all tends to happen during class as well,” Welch said, adding “the anxiety one feels trying to focus on what a teacher is saying when you have a significant menstrual problem is unbearable.”

Tepler laid out a scenario to show why tampons and pads ought to be available in bathrooms rather than just a nurse’s office.

“Picture this,” she told the committee, “I am a 12-year-old experiencing my period for only the fourth time. My mom has given me a pad but only one extra and by 2 p.m., I know I will need another soon or face the embarrassment of bleeding through onto my jeans.”

“I ask the teacher if I can go to the nurse’s office. She asks if I am feeling all right. If I say no, she may refuse my request unless I can articulate exactly what I need. If I say yes, I am lying, and she will be confused by my return to the classroom in 15 minutes and possibly asked what happened,” Tepler said.

“When I get to the nurse’s office,” Tepler said, “I must again articulate what I need to the nurse.”

“This is a form of shaming for young people who have their menses,” Tepler said.

The legislative chair for the Maine Association of School Nurses, Melanie Whited, the school nurse at St. Dominic Academy in Lewiston, said that “keeping supplies in school bathrooms will allow students to avoid missing class or worse, possibly an entire day of school.”

She called the measure a common-sense move that would especially help “our low-income communities that experience ‘Period Poverty.’

There is some concrete evidence that a real need exists.

Tessa Meil, a sophomore student at Camden Hills Regional High School in Camden, told lawmakers that she’s worked with the nonprofit One Less Worry to stock free menstrual products in the women’s bathrooms at Camden-Rockport Middle School.

Meil said she had to refill them at least weekly and one combined seventh and eighth grade restroom required her to refill three times a week.

“That level of demand showed me that people were not only counting on these free products for ‘oops’ moments,” Meil said, “but also as a constant source of menstrual products that they may not have had access to at home.”

There has been a growing worldwide effort to make sanitary products more accessible, including bids to remove sales taxes on tampons and pads, which another bill under consideration in Augusta would do. Legislators are also eyeing a bill to increase donations of menstrual supplies.

Eileen King, deputy executive director of Maine School Management Association, said the Maine School Boards Association and Maine School Superintendents Association favor Tepler’s bill.

“We understand more than a dozen states have or are considering similar bills,” King said, “and California, Illinois, New Hampshire and New York already have enacted legislation. “

Destie Hohman Sprague, executive director of Maine Women’s Lobby, said when people can’t access essential needs “they have to resort to reusing products, using them for longer than indicated, using items not intended as period products, or skipping school or work.”

“These alternatives can pose serious risks to health and hygiene as well as educational and economic security,” she said.

Its “disproportionate impact overwhelmingly affects women, girls, marginalized populations such as incarcerated individuals, and low-income people,” Sprague said, causing “additional harm on already vulnerable Mainers.”

During the public hearing, nobody opposed the bill.

Sampson wondered if it would be better to leave the issue to local districts to handle. She said she wants to see more data on which schools are already paying for menstrual products.

The education panel is expected to begin discussing Tepler’s bill on Monday.

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