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Rhode Island bill may require public schools to offer free pads, tampons

Bill would help students who lack sanitary products, maintain privacy

If passed, a bill currently in the Rhode Island State Senate would require all of the state’s public schools that include grades six through 12 to provide free feminine hygiene products in bathrooms. Sen. Valerie Lawson (D-East Providence and Pawtucket) introduced this legislation in February “so feminine hygiene products would be available to students at no cost,” she said.

Specifically, bill S2183 would require that feminine hygiene products be provided in both gender neutral and women’s bathrooms, Lawson said. The term “feminine hygiene products” includes both tampons and sanitary napkins. If the bill passes and is signed into law, it would go into effect before the beginning of the 2021-22 school year.

Megan Geoghegan, communications director at Rhode Island Department of Education, said that RIDE supports the bill, but that its implementation would “be a locally deployed process.”

The lack of access to sanitary products and the absences this creates motivated Lawson to introduce this bill.

“As educators, we want kids to be in school … and any obstacles to that hurt kids academically,” Lawson said. “We want to remove whatever barriers that exist, and we want to support (students) in any way that we can.” Lawson believes the bill could remove one of these barriers: “It’s one less thing they have to worry about.”

Kelly Nevins, executive director of the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island — whose mission is to help advance gender equity through systematic change — believes that the bill would “absolutely” help support girls in going to school and in getting an education. If “you can’t afford feminine hygiene products and you’re on your period … that prevents you from going to school,” Nevins said. “We provide, for example, toilet paper; why can’t we provide feminine hygiene products to students that need them?”

This bill would also promote privacy for students and allow them to get the products they need without “having to go to any adult in the building,” Lawson said.

Similar legislation has been passed in other states, including New York, Illinois, California and New Hampshire, where it has largely been successful, according to Lawson. A pilot test was also run in Providence, but this bill “would make it statewide,” Lawson said.

Success with the program in cities and in towns may help this bill pass, Nevins said.

Currently, the bill has been referred to the Senate Education Committee. At a hearing date to be determined, “the committee will consider it and take hopefully a vote on it,” said Lawson.

The Women’s Fund of Rhode Island “will probably submit written testimony to support it,” Nevins said.

If this vote is successful, it will be voted on in the full Senate Chamber, where Lawson is “optimistic” about the bill’s passage.

There is also a companion bill in the Rhode Island House of Representatives that was introduced by Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee (D-South Kingstown and Narragansett); it proposes the same stipulations.

The passage of this bill would impose some monetary costs on Rhode Island Public Schools. Geoghegan stated that RIDE has not seen an official fiscal impact analysis yet, but that “the cost will be borne by the districts rather than the state.”

According to Lawson, “the initial costs would be the dispenser and then … the ongoing costs would be providing the sanitary products.” She added that “a per bathroom projection” of costs is difficult, as “it depends on how frequently that bathroom is used.”

However, some preliminary costs have been calculated. Pricing depends on if some machines need to be retrofitted as opposed to newly acquired and if schools are going to purchase in-stall trash cans, Lawson wrote in an email to The Herald. She added that currently, “we’re running at (approximately) $727/bathroom.”


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