Students at schools, colleges, and universities in Washington state could soon gain access to free menstrual hygiene products, such as tampons and pads, in their school bathrooms starting in 2022, if a bill up for consideration in the Legislature passes into law.
Advocates for the bill say providing equitable access to the products is an especially timely issue, given the economic impacts of COVID-19, and puts tampons and pads on par with other necessities such as soap and toilet paper. They also argue that offering them at no cost in schools will offer menstruating students the freedom to focus.
Those who testified at a public hearing this week cited a Harris Poll of 1,000 teens aged 13-19 who menstruate, which was commissioned by Thinx Inc., a period-proof underwear company, and the youth-led nonprofit PERIOD. The survey found 1 in 5 of the teens had struggled to afford the products or weren’t able to purchase them.
Over 4 in 5 had missed class time or knew someone who had because they didn’t have access to period products, and 61 percent had worn a tampon or pad for over four hours due to lack of access to products, which “puts them at risk of infection and TSS” (toxic shock syndrome).
“The effects of lack of access to menstrual hygiene products includes the risk of infection, emotional anxiety, and logistical challenges,” bill sponsor Rep. April Berg, D-Mill Creek, said at a Tuesday hearing. “And through HB 1273, menstruating students will have free access to these products in schools, allowing them to better focus on their education.”
Last year, the Legislature passed a bill into law that exempts menstrual hygiene products from the state’s sales and use tax. A bill to require the products be offered at public schools made it through the state Senate on a unanimous vote but stalled in the House.
According to the Free the Tampons Foundation, which advocates for increased availability of free menstrual products, California, New York, Illinois, New Hampshire, and Virginia have passed legislation requiring schools to provide the products for free. Washington was among several states to introduce bills to that end in 2020, according to the National Education Association.
The bill up for consideration this year has some bipartisan support: Among the bill’s 28 co-sponsors is Republican Rep. Michelle Caldier of Port Orchard, and Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, sponsored a companion bill in the Senate.
It would require school districts, charter schools, state tribal compact schools, and private schools serving grades 6-12 to make the hygiene products available at no cost in gender-neutral and female-designated bathrooms by the 2022-23 school year. The same would be required in public and private colleges and universities.
The costs would fall to the schools, which could apply for grants or partner with nonprofits or community organizations to get the products. A case of menstrual hygiene products can cost $29-57, according to a fiscal note, and sanitary dispensers can cost $200-400.
Total costs for school districts in fiscal year 2023 could amount to $1.86 million, then $363,950 per year after that, according to the note. It uses Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction data to estimate there are roughly 7,480 female-designated bathrooms in about 1,255 schools in grades 6-12, assumes schools don’t currently provide the products, that every bathroom would get a $200 dispenser, and that schools would go through one $29 case per month.
Jinyang Zhang, a high school senior, pointed out in her testimony that the estimates include the cost of dispensers that aren’t required by the bill — cheaper methods are acceptable. And, she said, it doesn’t account for public school districts that already offer free menstrual products.
“I believe that this is a worthy investment for our low-income students and the future of our workforce,” she said.
Zhang was among several students who testified at the public hearing in the House Appropriations Committee Tuesday. Students shared data and sometimes personal stories of how the effort could clear the way for menstruating students’ success. One Lake Washington student shared a story of a student who got her period during a standardized test and had to sit uncomfortably through the exam when denied access to her backpack to grab a pad or tampon.
“We support this bill because menstruating students should not have to choose between their period and their learning,” high school senior Ramya Arumilli testified.
While costs vary by university, a fiscal note shows the University of Washington, which already provides free menstrual products in most buildings, would have estimated costs of $725,792 in the 2021-23 biennium and $688,480 the next two biennia. Western Washington University’s estimate is $196,300 the initial biennium, then $86,000 per bienna.
Some who testified proposed changes to the bill while expressing support.
Samantha Fakharzadeh, who was representing the students of Washington State University with the Washington Students Association, advocated for the language to be more inclusive of the experience of transgender students. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) recommended adding that schools serving grades 3-5 also make period products available in school health rooms or other locations.
“This bill supports students,” said Laurie Dils with OSPI. “Particularly students living in poverty or experiencing homelessness, those who may be unable to afford period supplies, those who may not have regular access to transportation to purchase supplies, and those who may lack the needed support from caring adults to access supplies.”
The bill is scheduled for executive session in the Appropriations committee Thursday afternoon.