Thursday’s review of House Bill 1131 brought up a topic that makes some people a little — or a lot —uncomfortable: women’s menstrual cycles.
It’s a topic that has come up twice in as many years at the state Capitol.
HB 1131 would set up a grant program within the state Department of Public Health and Environment that would allow schools to provide menstrual products free of charge, and avoid some of the embarrassment many face over their periods.
The bill got its first hearing on Feb. 6 from the House Education Committee, and after a 8-5 party-line vote, moves on to the House Appropriations Committee.
The stars of the hearing were high school students, who told lawmakers (including some older women who don’t go through the experience any more) what it is like to use toilet paper, paper towels or other items in lieu of having menstrual products; or taking “the walk” — that moment when you can’t get to a tampon or pad soon enough.
Some of the students were nervous, others more poised, but all were passionate about the problems school-age women face at “that time of month.”
It’s not just about the supplies themselves, Titone explained. It’s also about the stigma tied to the menstrual cycle. When Rep. Perry Buck, R-Windsor, said that students should reach out to nurses to get the supplies, co-sponsor Rep. Yadira Caraveo, D-Thornton, said going to the nurse amplifies the embarrassment, in having to explain why.
A period is embarrassing to begin with, explained Caraveo, who is a pediatrician. For some, talking to a school nurse can make the feeling worse. And some schools have male nurses, which adds another level of awkwardness, she explained.
Menstruation is incredibly stigmatizing and extends into classrooms for young women, said Tara Trujillo, a senior at Arvada West High School and a member of the school’s Intersectional Feminist Club, which brought the issue to Titone’s attention.
One example is the plethora of phrases that exist to describe menstruation: "time of the month," "on the rag" or "female trouble," she said.
“Our society doesn’t view menstruation as a normal or comfortable part of life and asking for a period product is associated with shame and is done in secret,” Trujillo said.
“This isn’t a stigma we should perpetuate in our schools ... period products are not a luxury.”
As introduced, HB 1131 carried a state cost of $467,633 in its first year and $37,733 in 2021-22. That drew opposition from committee Republicans, who said the schools should already be doing this on their own and within their existing budgets.
The cost is tied both to the products themselves and to the cost of machines that would dispense them for free.
However, Titone amended the bill down to $50,000, telling the committee the money is intended more or less as a two-year pilot program and just for Title I schools that do not already provide the products for free.
Those schools have a higher number of students eligible for free and reduced-cost lunches, the federal definition of poverty. Fifty schools would get $1,000 each, which would pay for two machines and the products. In other states, providing those products in school has lowered absenteeism, Titone told the committee.
Denver Public Schools have already decided to provide those machines and products on their own, according to witness testimony.
Rhiannon Wenning, the community schools site coordinator for the Jefferson Jr./Sr. High School, told the committee that 90% of their students are on free and reduced lunch. Families can’t use food stamps for menstrual products, so that means many can’t afford them.
“Period poverty is real,” she said, which affects about 20% of the school’s girls, and that affects academic progress. She set up a fundraiser for her school that raised $300 for menstrual products, but that just covers one year.
Arvada West student Piper Acuff, treasurer of the Intersectional Feminist Club, said not having access to menstruation products is a serious health risk, too. Poverty forces women into unhygienic practices, using socks, rags or paper products. This isn’t just in Third-World countries, it happens here as well, she said.
“To fall back on these unsanitary methods" results in all kinds of health problems, like toxic shock and yeast infections, she said. “No woman should suffer in silence.... Providing access avoids these health risks.”
Some students described being turned down by their schools when they asked for help with providing menstrual products, which they said happened at Arvada West as well as schools in Boulder.
These students “are a force of change,” Caraveo said. Young women are getting more assertive every day, she said, but this still leaves a situation where if there's no policy in place, it’s hard to find the products, so they miss 20 minutes of school hunting for a pad or tampon.
Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, said he liked the idea but thought the $50,000 cost should be covered by schools, especially since the state was able to free up millions to pay for full-day kindergarten.
Wilson, who’s a retired teacher and school district superintendent, said when he was a coach in the schools, girls would come to him when they were having problems associated with their periods.
Young women might not be embarrassed by a coach but they’re sure embarrassed by 14-year old boys who make fun, responded Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, who is also a retired teacher.
The General Assembly in 2019 passed a state law making menstrual products free to women who are in jail, state or private prisons or in the custody of the Department of Human Services, which runs youth offender facilities.