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.”