The Berkeley School Board is considering a policy requiring free pads and tampons in many school bathrooms. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Students who unexpectedly get their periods at school without the proper supplies could be spared the familiar embarrassment if a new district policy is approved, proponents say.

The proposed rules, on Wednesday’s Berkeley School Board meeting agenda, would stock many school bathrooms with free menstrual products.

The policy would place the district in compliance with a year-old California law requiring free pads and tampons in 50% of the bathrooms at secondary schools with a certain poverty level. Both Longfellow Middle School and Berkeley Technology Academy are above the 40% poverty threshold, and other Berkeley schools have been in recent years too.

But what’s proposed in Berkeley would exceed the requirements, stocking all middle and high school girls’ and gender-neutral restrooms — and at least one bathroom at each elementary school — with free menstrual products. Trash bins would be required in each stall as well.

The board members who crafted the policy hope it will “reduce stigma,” they said in the agenda report. Free pads and tampons would “provide ready access to menstrual products for students without the traditional embarrassment of asking for supplies, and will reduce tardies or absences for students on their periods. It will also ensure that students who cannot afford to buy menstrual products will not go without these basic necessities while at school.”

The new rules were drafted by the board’s policy subcommittee, consisting of Ty Alper and Beatriz Leyva-Cutler. They estimate that it would cost Berkeley Unified “less than $5,000” to install all the dispensers and another $5,000 annually for upkeep. Several school bathrooms already have dispensers.

Berkeley High students told Berkeleyside that they can already get pads and tampons at the health center, but the trek across campus can be difficult or impossible in the middle of class.

“You have to get a pass, and it can be 20 minutes,” said Maria, 18. She noted, though, that existing dispensers have often been vandalized, and said the free products “would be really good” as long as the supplies were monitored and maintained.

Several Berkeley High restrooms already have menstrual product dispensers. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

“I think it’s important,” said Devon, 17, when she heard about the proposal. “Sometimes when I have an emergency, I kind of freak out.”

In September, Berkeley High junior Rachel Alper wrote an op-ed for Berkeleyside explaining why she ran for class vice-president, and won, “on the promise of bringing free menstrual products to Berkeley High.”

“There are two options: go to class and bleed through your clothes (which is humiliating), or ditch school and find a tampon somewhere,” wrote Rachel, daughter of board member Alper. “Nobody would disagree that school bathrooms need to stock products as necessary as toilet paper, soap and paper towels and that a failure to do so imposes barriers to learning.”

Rachel wrote that she has been working with Principal Erin Schweng to install several new dispensers this year.

The district-wide policy could be a first for a public school district in California, according to the board, but Illinois and New York City both require free menstrual products in school bathrooms already.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...