Imagine this: you’re in the 9th grade, and when the bell rings, you’ve got five minutes to get from Language Arts to algebra. That gives you just enough time to visit the ladies room. And surprise! Your menstrual period has arrived a few days early.
With no supplies in your purse, you panic. But wait. There, on the wall, you see a dispenser. Problem solved, right?
At Lahne Romaker’s school, you’d be out of luck.
“There is a dispenser,” she says, “but one side of it is broken, and the other side is empty.”
Under the Learn With Dignity Act, which became law in January 2018, tampons and sanitary pads are supposed to be available for free in school bathrooms for grades six through 12. But are districts complying? Since there’s no handy way to do a scientific survey of school bathrooms state-wide, we recruited two journalism students to help collect anecdotal evidence about where and how this law is being implemented.
Romaker, a junior at Springfield Southeast High School, checked with friends who attend school in surrounding communities.
“Mostly I found that, in other schools, there was the same situation that we have,” she said. “They have dispensers, but either the kids don’t know they’re there or if they are there, they’re not fully equipped with what should be in them.”
Abigail Olalere, another journalism student at Southeast, checked with friends in nearby districts, and started taking notice when she traveled to other schools as part of Southeast’s varsity basketball team. Bloomington’s University High definitely had a dispenser, stocked with products, Olalere says. But she also discovered most students had never heard of this law.
“Many people who I told about the law were in the dark like me, but more so, the views on it were positive,” Olalere said, “and they’re like yeah, this is a thing!”
The 2017 legislation was sponsored by Litesa Wallace. Back then, Wallace was the Democratic state representative for Rockford, and this issue had long been one of her personal crusades.
“I had an annual holiday party that I would do in my district, and to attend the party, I asked people to bring feminine hygiene products and diapers to go to our local shelters and a crisis nursery in my district,” she said.
As her bill wound its way through committees, a handful of interest groups tried to derail it. In an interview with Olalere and Romaker, Statewide School Management Alliance lobbyist Alison Maley explained why.
“A lot of times, what it comes down to is whether there’s funding associated with a mandate that’s coming from the state, that they are not necessarily supporting financially,” she said. “So that’s really where our opposition came in.”
Yet Wallace points out that no one ever came up with a price tag for her proposal.
“There were no cost estimates done on the bill, which was very surprising,” she said. “Usually opponents will try to get that to stall something.”
Perhaps that was because, in the summer of 2017, state lawmakers had weightier concerns. Illinois was in the second year of operating without a state budget. The funding formula for k-12 schools was undergoing a complete overhaul. And while other states were restricting abortion access, Illinois lawmakers opted to increase protections for choice.
In the midst of that heated, emotional debate, Wallace saw an opportunity to capitalize on the mood to get her measure approved.
“After the hours-long debate on reproductive health, I went to the clerk and asked that he please put the bill on the board,” she said. “I believe it passed in less than two minutes.”
Wallace’s presentation consisted of one sentence: “This is a bill that simply states that in our education facilities — public, private or charter — we will provide, in the restroom, feminine hygiene products for girls in school.”
State Rep. Margo McDermed (R-Mokena) was the only one lawmaker to speak against it.
“I do think this is a great bill. I’m a woman. There’s nothing worse than being caught without your needed feminine hygiene products when the moment strikes,” McDermed said.
Her objection had to do with timing.
“Let’s deal with the budget, let’s deal with pension reform, let’s deal with some of the issues we were elected to handle, and then let’s talk about these things. Which are good things! It’s not a bad thing,” she said. “But it’s not an important thing when we don’t have a budget.”
Wallace’s bill passed the House by a vote of 64 to 51. Two months later, then-Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, signed it into law.
Some school districts implemented it wholeheartedly, setting out baskets on bathroom shelves or installing mailboxes on the wall. Many opted for vending machines that don’t take quarters, because the products are free. At least one district even put dispensers in the boys bathrooms, to accommodate transgender students.
But since the Learn With Dignity Act doesn’t have any teeth, Olalere pushed Maley about whether districts are obeying the law.
“Is there any work going on to see if it can be enforced or to get funding for this?” Olalere asked.
“As far as I know — and I haven’t done a study or a survey of any sort — as far as I know, schools are complying with this as best they can,” Maley said.
In our non-scientific social media survey, however, the most common response indicated many districts provide free products only in the school nurse’s office, which falls short of what Wallace’s legislation requires.
“The law is very clear that the products have to be provided within the bathroom,” Wallace said. “Just like we provide toilet tissue and soap and paper towels, those products should be inside the restroom.”
What’s wrong with just having to go to the nurse’s office?
“We don’t ask anyone else to re-dress after having utilized the bathroom to walk down the hallway and ask for toilet tissue,” she said. “So we should not ask menstruating people to leave the restroom, go to another location to get a product, and then go back to the restroom to do what they need to do.”
After weeks of informal research, the student journalists agreed we had only one solid conclusion: The situation would be different if boys needed products.
“Like, if guys needed it,” Olalere said, “it would be no problem.”