Republicans seek to roll back free menstrual products in public schools law 

Monitor staff
Published: 2/28/2021 3:22:37 PM

Two years after mandating that New Hampshire public schools provide feminine hygiene products in their bathrooms for free, some members of the New Hampshire Legislature are considering reversing course.

Lawmakers on the House Education Committee heard testimony last week on House Bill 458, which would undo the requirement that schools provide tampons and sanitary napkins for free.

Instead, HB 458 would give school health departments the option to provide the products if it “determines that there are students in need of menstrual hygiene products within its school population.”

And it would allow the schools to charge students for the tampons at “minimal cost.”

The bill was touted by supporters Tuesday as a way to relieve schools of a burden while allowing those who want to proceed to keep doing so. Rather than paying for the products themselves, the school district would accept donations, grant money, or local funding from non-profit organizations or others to cover the costs, something they can currently do now.

“I don’t think the state of New Hampshire should be micromanaging schools regarding how and where to provide these products,” said Rep. Judy Aron, an Acworth Republican, the lead sponsor on the effort. “Those things should be left up to the discretion of the school administration.”

The effort would pare back a law passed and signed by Gov. Chris Sununu in 2019 that introduced the requirement. Senate Bill 142 passed after high school students testified in person about its importance in allowing girls of all income levels to participate in school activities comfortably.

“This legislation is about equality and dignity,” Sununu said at the time. 

That bill had some bipartisan support in the Senate when it passed – three Republicans joined 14 Democrats. In the House, it passed on narrower partisan lines. 

Aron said that the bill passed in 2019 “had and still has much merit.” But she said that the original law amounted to an unfunded mandate for schools – a directive that schools or localities provide something without the funding to allow them to do so – which barred in state statute.

The 2019 law says that menstrual hygiene products must be made available “at no cost,” and that the school district must bear the cost, Aron noted. 

Aron said that that had been costly for schools, some of which had to buy machines to hold the products for every bathroom “at great cost.” And she claimed that products had been hoarded by some students and taken by non-students. 

“If you leave a basket of tampons and napkins, they will disappear in a flash,” she said. The result, she argued, is that the hygiene products might not be available for the students who need them. 

Barrett Christina, the executive director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association, pushed back on that claim, saying he had not heard from any school districts concerned about theft or hoarding. 

But Christina said the association does support the bill to make it voluntary, even if it supports the general goal of providing the products to students for free. 

After the 2019 law, Manchester school district, which comprises 13,522 students, had to budget for $125,000 as a result of the bill, Christina said, which came at a time where the district is cutting buildings. Other school districts had $5,000 to $10,000 expenses, he said. 

“We did in part because we were told to do it. In part, school districts did it because it was the right thing to do,” Christina said. “But the reality is it’s an unfunded mandate.” 

Instead, Christina said, the policy should remain but the Legislature should fund the costs itself. 

But opponents said that reverting to a voluntary option would reintroduce the stigma faced by teenagers who must ask for tampons from the school nurse, and potentially have worse effects. The original bill, they argued, was meant to address the phenomenon of “period poverty” for students and their families.

“Without such basic products, going to school either isn’t an option or it becomes eight endless, distracted hours of humiliation as students hope their one tampon or pad will get them through the day,” said Jeanne Hruska, political director at the Americans for Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire. 

Hruska said the ACLU recognized “that the 2019 legislation may have imposed a financial burden on schools,” and acknowledged budget crunches for school districts brought on by increased costs and temporarily low enrolments during COVID-19. But she argued the provision of menstrual pads should be a right of its own for students.

“No matter how tight the budget, schools would never require their students to go without toilet paper – or bring their own,” Hruska said. “That same analysis should be applied to tampons and pads.” 

Julia Mead, an obstetrician/gynecologist from Lebanon, said that she works with patients to regulate menstrual cycles, which can lead to difficulties and discrimination. 

“I know that periods are considered taboo or embarrassing to talk about, but I think it's time that we recognized this normal, physiologic occurrence and think of it as a way to provide fairer conditions to women and residents in our state,” she said. 

Under the proposed new legislation, the school could continue to receive menstrual products donated by a non-profit organization, or it could purchase the products “with grant money or other state or local funding reimbursement program.”

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