I don’t have any traumatic memories of going to the school nurse when I was in middle or high school, having to ask for a pad because I had gotten my period unexpectedly, or had forgotten what I needed at home. It’s not that I never went to the nurse; I just never thought twice about doing it. 

That’s the problem.

Period stigma has become so ingrained in every action, policy, and system related to our periods that we haven’t stopped to think about how our very own actions have exacerbated the very stigma we are working to erase.

When my daughters, Quinn and Emma, were in middle and high school, respectively, we learned several girls at Quinn’s middle school were regularly missing class or full days because of their parents’ inability to afford period products. Several years later, as the executive director of Girls Helping Girls. Period., the nonprofit the three of us co-founded, I was thrilled to attend a “ribbon cutting” ceremony in that school’s main bathroom. It was to mark the installation of a free-vend Aunt Flow dispenser resulting from a student-led advocacy effort combined with a PTA fundraiser.

When I was chatting with the school nurse about why the items had previously been located in a drawer in the medical office I got a very direct, “Because that’s the way we’ve always done things, Elise.” (Sigh.) Exactly. 

It is time for everyone to rethink how we address periods in public spaces. Workplaces, public buildings, and schools may have been designed generations ago by men for men, but to treat them as if we are still living in that time, without consideration of how society has changed, is to admit we are okay with a blatant lack of equity on the most basic level. 

Saying that we “just weren’t aware” of the inequities half our population faces isn’t a viable excuse anymore, either. A few years ago, my progressive, feminist high school principal friend admitted that she had no idea if there were menstrual products available in her school’s student bathrooms because she never went into them. Needless to say, she checked the day after that chat and appreciated the importance of seeking out inequities, even when they were not apparent.

So, how do you know what you don’t know? The first step is to include students in discussions about things that affect their lives. It’s one of the most important suggestions we make to school administrators before they put free-vend dispensers in their bathrooms. There are a lot of issues they must take into account to ensure a smooth, or let’s be honest, smooth-ish, program

Addressing the Issues Associated with Providing Free Period Products in Student Restrooms


If you’ve purchased a box of tampons, you know there is always an insert in the package that, among other things, has written instructions for using the enclosed “medical devices.” That is due to an FDA regulation that, strangely, does not apply to menstrual products distributed in a dispenser, which is how they are commonly shared in school restrooms. The result is period products offered to young people who may not have accurate and complete information about how to use them. 

Hear what one school staffer had to say about the difference in her school and its students after basic period management education provided by Girls Helping Girls Period.

If we recognize a loss in education when students do not find all they need in the restroom to manage their period, shouldn’t we also agree that educating them on how to use the products we provide is critical? Girls Helping Girls. Period. offers workshops and a range of resources for schools looking for student support. For example, these posters, which anyone can hang in bathroom stalls, offer instructions in several languages for using pads and tampons. Feel free to use them in your bathrooms!

(DOWNLOAD GHGP’s “How to Use” posters for your restroom)

Product Choice

There are few school bathrooms that have luxurious toilet paper. Generally it’s industrial and scratchy, but when it’s needed, it is useful. Students will not necessarily love the period products offered in school, but again, if needed, they will use them. Students will be respectful of them IF they are included in the choice discussion, and, in time, they realize they can rely on them being there.

School budgets are always tight, and what products ultimately are available may be based on financial constraints. Helping students understand that or reach that conclusion in conversations may not only save on vandalism issues but also offer a practical budgeting/math lesson.

Fully stocked, free-vend dispensers in a student bathroom are a subtle way to let students know their school cares about everyone’s education. An empty free-vend dispenser is an equally direct message that our society easily provides all the boys need without always considering the other half of the student body.

Considering the capacity of the dispenser should be one of the most important factors. Popular models generally hold fewer than 40 items. How long would those last in your school bathroom? There have been many great innovations in the school period supply space, including large capacity dispensers and even Pads on a Roll. When schools can look beyond their usual bathroom supply companies, they might find products and brands that will support efforts to reduce excessive use and vandalism. 


Having the products just pop up in school bathrooms is not an effective method for implementing a program that aims to create bathroom equity. Communication is critical and could start with a simple survey to students and/or parents asking whether they prefer pads or tampons. There’s no sense in putting in dispensers that offer both equally if 90% of the student body doesn’t use tampons.

Someday, young people will not imagine a school restroom without menstrual products, but for now, this is a major step in creating systemic change within our culture. There are great opportunities to have conversations with students and families surrounding gender equity and menstruation, including all students, not just those who menstruate. There are so many resources that have become available in the past few years that can guide these conversations, and GHGP can assist in that effort, too. 

Demystifying Menstruation: Understanding Periods and the Menstrual Cycle

Empowering Parents: Teaching Children of All Genders about Periods and Menstrual Management

School policies and teacher tendencies are sometimes harsh on students who get periods. Students may not be able to take a bag with them from class to the bathroom, forcing them to frantically find a friend who can help, or wait for a nurse who otherwise would not need to be involved in a basic bathroom trip. Teachers may not recognize that a student requesting to use the bathroom would prefer not to have to explain why they can not wait until the “passing period” to go. 

Our experience has shown us that not all men understand that periods can not simply be “held in.” Conversations regarding free period products in school could extend to every student, parent, and staff member. The effects of systemic period stigma are deeply rooted in ways we are yet to discover.

Schools must address a wide range of issues if they hope to bring period products into school bathrooms without disturbance. Many of the issues are best tackled before a single item is ordered. Educating students on how to safely use period products, including them in choosing products, and communicating the plan clearly to all stakeholders is key to success. 

Reach out to Girls Helping Girls Period here if you are interested in our consulting services or in-person workshops in New Jersey.