“Dispensers” that don’t dispense

Caption: “It’s just clear that even though the school put up the dispensers, they don’t really care,” said sophomore Ainsley Hawkins, highlighting the apathy displayed by the school towards making sure students have the products they need.

Photo courtesy of Christina Nies

Caption: “It’s just clear that even though the school put up the dispensers, they don’t really care,” said sophomore Ainsley Hawkins, highlighting the apathy displayed by the school towards making sure students have the products they need.

Despite the fact that dispensers claiming to contain free menstrual products are present in girl’s restrooms throughout the school, these dispensers have been consistently empty since the beginning of the school year.

“I noticed [the empty dispensers] super early in the school year,” said senior Zoelle Pierce. “I even asked my friends if they’d ever seen any products in the machines and they all said no.”

This discrepancy negatively impacts students in need of period supplies who aren’t able to access them. While it is true that products such as pads and tampons are available in the nurse’s office and can be obtained by asking other students, it is unfair to expect students to rely on others for their basic needs, especially when some students may not be comfortable asking for a product.

“I have needed a product once but I relied on my friend instead because I [knew] there was hardly a chance the machines would have anything,” said Pierce. 

Many people who menstruate also bring their own supplies to school with them, but due to rising costs not everyone can afford this luxury.

“Because of the ‘pink tax,’ feminine hygiene products are so expensive and are only getting more expensive,” explained sophomore Mia Chetelat. “Imagine how difficult it is for low income families to provide the products for themselves.” 

Recently, Virginia became the fifth state in the nation to pass laws mandating free menstrual products in school bathrooms for grades five through 12. Therefore, the school is legally required to stock the dispensers— a requirement that is currently unfulfilled. 

“I have noticed [the empty dispensers] and I think it’s really annoying,” said sophomore Sarah Ewell. “[The school is] legally required to provide menstrual products for us at public schools, so they should [stock the dispensers].” 

Student activities director Andrew Muir reported that the dispensers were installed two years ago, specifically during the summer before the pandemic. Initially, the school system kept the machines stocked and refilled consistently, but became distracted with additional challenges due to the virus. 

“The initial plan was the school system was putting them in, they were going to stock them, and it was going to become the school’s responsibility to continue stocking them from that point forward,” explained Muir. “And then [COVID-19] came along, and we’ve been out of school. So much more was focused on every other aspect of school, masking, cleaning, everything else.” 

Despite being empty for the entire school year, the school was only notified of the empty dispensers roughly a month ago. Work is currently being done to fill them again and keep them filled like they were in the past. 

“I think someone brought it up to the central office. And they contacted us and said that there was concern that the machines were empty. So we’ve been working on it since then to get them filled,” said Muir. “We’re ordering tampons and pads. And the goal is the machines will be stocked up every night, for the next day.”

Despite these efforts, further questions surrounding the stockage continue to hold back efforts to rectify the issue. 

“Trying to establish roughly what you think that daily use is going to be, is probably the hardest part we’ve been trying to figure out,” said Muir. “I think the other part of trying to estimate the usage is if people take them and use them for toilet rolls, people stuffing them down toilets to try and block them up and stuff like that.”  

While a step in the right direction has been made now that the school has been made aware of the state of the dispensers, the fact that they have been empty for as long as they have overshadows any progress. All schools in Virginia have a legal obligation to provide menstrual products to students, just as they are mandated to serve school lunch. If lunches suddenly stopped being served, outrage would ensue. This same outrage is completely justified for period products, which are just as essential as food. No one should have to wonder where their next tampon will come from.