Teen fights against ‘period poverty’ in schools
ROCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — Teen Caroline Dillon is spearheading a bill that would require New Hampshire schools to provide free feminine hygiene products like pads and tampons.
The Spaulding High School senior is hoping to end what’s known as “period poverty.” She also hopes to end the stigmas and taboos associated with the essential hygiene products because she believes they should be treated like toilet paper, which schools already provide to students.
“I know for a fact that girls here and at the middle school will stay home if they don’t have access, and they’ll (do) awful things like using socks or newspaper or reusing things, and your risk for infection skyrockets,” said Dillon, 17.
Dillon said she learned about period poverty during a U.S. history project on repressed groups and inequality last June. The term refers to the learning time, work and other things that girls and women miss because they can’t afford feminine hygiene products.
The negative impact, according to Dillon and women’s health experts, is immeasurable and systemic.
“I was horrified,” said Dillon, who added she’s known since the fourth grade that she wants to pursue a career as a nurse midwife and nurse practitioner to help address women’s health issues. “To think about my classmates being in need and not having the access to something so basic is just awful. I couldn’t really let that go. Once you know something like that, you can’t go back from it.”
After writing a mock version of the bill during an American Legion Auxiliary youth government program last summer, Dillon reached out to state Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover. Dillon said she did so because she felt the health- and education-focused lawmaker could help her shepherd a real one.
Their conversations resulted in Senate Bill 142, which went before the Senate’s Education and Workforce Development Committee this past Tuesday. Dillon and Rochester Middle School seventh-grader Alex Kann both testified Tuesday, after which the five-person committee voted unanimously to support the bill.
The full Senate is slated to vote on SB 142 this upcoming week.
Hennessey said she’s optimistic the legislation will be passed to address a “mortifying” issue. Hennessey also commended the “quite remarkable” Dillon, stating it’s admirable that she is standing up to an issue that Dillon’s been fortunate enough not to have experienced personally.
“We don’t ask children to bring their own toilet paper to school - the school supplies them,” said Hennessey. “While I know schools don’t get enough funding from the state and I will work to ensure they get as much as possible, I do feel this should just be a part of the school ordering (supplies) like toilet paper ... Even though it only applies to half the population, it is a necessity and people are not coming to school because of it.”
There have been some efforts to quantify how many educational hours New Hampshire students miss because they stay home or wait in line at their school nurse’s office to obtain feminine hygiene products.
“But to be honest, I’m not really sure those numbers matter,” Hennessey said. “Approximately 54 percent of people in middle school and high school are female. Again, if it were toilet paper, it would be covered. I just think it makes perfect sense.”
The cost of SB 142 is expected to be one of the bill’s biggest hurdles.
The Concord Monitor has reported Hopkinton resident Mary Kusturin testified Tuesday the bill as proposed could burden taxpayers in cash-strapped school districts that are already struggling to cover educational costs.
Hennessey said she doesn’t consider SB 142 to be an unfunded mandate and she’s OK with the bill going through to the Senate without any specific appropriations. Hennessey said she is looking into the issue further, though, and is “thinking about other creative ways of having it funded,” which could lead to an amendment.
Dillon said she believes the ultimate costs will be relatively minimal. In doing so, she pointed to the Rochester School Board’s recent decision to appropriate $4,000 to cover the cost of supplying feminine hygiene products in dispensers inside Spaulding and RMS bathrooms.
“We’re not a particularly rich city or anything, but the fact that they were more than willing to work with us and to make a place for it in the budget I think it says a lot,” said Dillon, whom Rochester School District officials credit with championing Rochester’s dispensers. “That it’s that important for a district with a really tight budget to make room for it. And I crunched the numbers. They put $4,000 in our $70 million budget, and that $4,000 (represents) 0.00005 percent. It’s nothing, but it means a whole lot to all of the kids.”
Rochester’s dispensers have been in use since the beginning of January. The actual estimated annual cost is around $2,700, although the district appropriated $4,000 as a safeguard.
Rochester is the same 10-school district that needed an emergency appropriation in early 2018 because an October 2017 spending freeze left it dangerously close to running out of paper towels, paper and other supplies before the end of the school year.
Spaulding Principal Justin Roy described Dillon as “amazing” while discussing Dillon’s efforts to spearhead Rochester’s dispensers and SB 142. Rochester School Superintendent Mike Hopkins wished Dillon and her bill well in Concord.
“I am glad she shared the concern and we were able to add the products to the bathrooms,” Hopkins said.
Dillon’s work is reminiscent of a growing number of activism-focused projects spurred by Seacoast students.
Ashleigh Marinoa, a junior at Traip Academy in Kittery, Maine, last year led a class service project last year that collected feminine hygiene projects for women and girls as they are not covered by the federal grant program Women, Infants and Children, or food stamps.
York Hospital heeded the students’ call and provide 9,000 tampons and 600 pads, enough supplies for 40 women for one year.
Dillon’s work also has shades of Barrington teen Cassie Levesque’s efforts to raise the state’s marriage age, which she did to curb child marriage and human trafficking.
Levesque, now 19, became one of New Hampshire’s youngest-ever state representatives when she was elected to the House last November. Apolitical, a global policy platform, also named Levesque to its “World’s 100 Most Influential Young People in Government” list in November.
Hennessey said the work of Dillon, Levesque and others is a “wonderful reflection on the future” of the state and country.
Dillon said she’s proud to take such a leadership role, particularly because she said she struggled with social anxiety and awkwardness before pushing herself to be a leader in Spaulding’s music department and French Honors Society.
“There’s a group of people who can’t necessarily speak up for themselves,” she said. “Once you see that sort of problem, you have to take action because if there are these people who are suffering and they’re not saying anything and you know, you have to be the voice for people who can’t say it. I think a lot of kids in my generation are taking a stand on things across the country. We’re just done not talking about it ... and we want everybody to have the same opportunities regardless of circumstance.”
Information from: Portsmouth Herald, http://www.seacoastonline.com