By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
Colorful decorated boxes full of menstrual products have been placed in the bathrooms of Montclair High School by students.
The boxes, which are placed in both girls’ and boys’ bathrooms, are intended to provide quick and free access to tampons and hygiene products when needed, without putting students in the uncomfortable situation of asking for products from friends or strangers, or asking permission to leave class to request them from the school nurse.
“I went to restock the boxes, and in almost every bathroom I went into the students were like: ‘Oh my gosh, I just needed a tampon. Thank you so much for doing this. This is helpful,’” said Dylan Campanaro, a MHS junior and board member of the Montclair Menstrual Club, one of the organizations involved in the effort to get the boxes in place. The group is not formally affiliated with the school, but consists of students and was founded last school year to destigmatize menstruation. “That’s really rewarding to see people need this and use it. I feel like they’re empowered by it.”
It worked alongside MHS’ National Organization for Women club. NOW advisers Anne Baney and Shana Stein said that group has been involved in the effort to get students access to menstrual products for years. NOW wrote a proposal given to Principal Jeffrey A. Freeman in the spring to put the boxes in place, and its members spoke at a Board of Education meeting this spring about it, they said.
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NOW members then created the boxes in August, and continue to stock them weekly on Wednesdays. They help keep the bathrooms clean as well.
Students in Montclair’s Civics and Government Institute additionally made period products for the bathrooms in their civics projects, the advisers said. They’d met with nursing staff, school board members and then-schools Superintendent Dr. Kendra Johnson about the effort.
Sahai John, a board member for the NOW club, said it’s been an opportunity for several students to work together toward a common goal.
“Our students do some amazing things and this is their initiative,” Freeman said. “This just speaks to how amazing our students are across the board.”
Been tried before
Members of the Montclair Menstrual Club had told Montclair Local last spring they were hopeful to get the products in place in bathrooms. In 2017, a NOW-organized drive placed decorated boxes of tampons in bathrooms, for anyone to take at no cost, then-MHS sophomore and club member Eliza Salamon told Montclair Local in the spring. She said then-Principal James Earle supported the idea, but NOW didn’t have enough money to replenish the boxes for the full year, she said.
Accounts of what happened the next year vary.
Salamon had said that in 2018, students went to then-Principal Anthony Grosso looking to bring the boxes back, but were told by administrators and nursing staff that cost would be an issue. Additionally, she said, there were concerns that students would take more than they needed at a given time.
“We feel like that should be encouraged if people don’t have them, instead of acting as if this is some evil act, like stealing tampons, when rather people actually absolutely need these things,” Maggie Greenberg, president of the NOW club, said this week.
Salamon had said as best as she and two co-club presidents she spoke to recall, club advisers told them Grosso and the nurse were also worried students could somehow use tampons to get drunk by soaking them in vodka before inserting them.
Grosso, though, told Montclair Local by email in the spring no such concern about vodka ever came up. And he said the administrators worked with students to find sustainable solutions. Still, the boxes didn’t come back at the time.
“I feel like now we’ve finally gotten to a great point where we have with them or replenish them, our principals [are] on our side, but it has really been a constant struggle throughout our entire high school careers,” Greenberg said.
Freeman told Montclair Local he wasn’t working at the school at that time, and he was not aware of the past situation.
Greenberg said for many members of the NOW Club, the struggle to get the menstrual products in place represents their time in high school, and they feel deeply connected to it as an issue.
“They put in so much work and so many hours and I think that’s part of what makes it so powerful,” she said.
Montclair Menstrual board member Serena Lee, also a MHS junior, said the club has several ideas for the future. She said that the club might not be able to see them all come to fruition, but one of its main goals is to bring the boxes to middle schools in town. Group members haven’t yet approached middle school administrators about that idea.
Natalie Smith, another MMC board member and MHS junior, said: “That’s when a lot of girls and people who have periods get their first period.”
The club is planning on hosting more collection drives and working with other organizations in town, Lee said. The club organized a collection with Café Moso early this year that raised $387 in donations and collected more than 3,000 products.
“We donated those to Montclair Mutual Aid so they distribute at their distribution days,” Lee said. “I think we have a great relationship with different groups because, for example with Aisle Seven (Montclair Mutual Aid’s menstrual product distribution program), we donated products to them and they’ve donated to us. I think it’s making all the work even more effective.”
The club and NOW chapter are discussing hosting a drive to collect feminine products and host events, Smith said. However, Campanaro, Lee and Smith said their biggest focus right now is on continued collection of donations, advocacy to have the products in middle schools and work to encourage the Montclair community to have conversations about periods.
“There’s definitely a really big stigma around periods,” Smith said. “I think that’s kind of why we wanted to start it and work to de-stigmatize the whole idea around that.”
Campanaro said that many of her peers and friends would be afraid to ask a teacher to go to the bathroom or go to the nurse’s office. She said teachers question the reasons they have to go.
“Or the teachers made them feel ashamed that they had to miss class time to take care of this natural bodily function,” Campanaro said.
Another way to de-stigmatize periods is by telling stories. Smith said in past meetings, attendees just talk about their experiences, how people felt in classes, how their interactions with teachers went. She said that’s what the club wants overall, because “people are so silent about it.”
To amplify other voices, Campanaro said, the club created a podcast, “That’s On Periods,” where it invites people to share their own personal experiences around their periods. It’s available on several podcast services, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Podcasts.
Even though the club has received positive reception, it has had some negative responses, Smith said.
In some boys bathrooms, some of the boxes were “destroyed and misplaced and emptied out in a kind of a rude way,” Smith said.
NOW club board member Elinor Behlman said it’s particularly important to have the menstrual products in boys bathrooms for students of various gender identities. For many, “asking the nurse for menstrual products is like a really unnecessary, stressful process,” she said.
Avoiding that stigma and stress, she said, “is one of the most amazing parts of this project, the difference it’s made.”
Daphne Scroggins, also board member, said it’s good for cis men tbe exposed to the products as well.
“These are just everyday products for life and they’re gonna stop throwing them on the floor and mature and eventually realize how important it is,” Scroggins said. “I was also super into the idea of it being so casual that you could be like, ‘Hey, ask your boyfriend if he can grab you a tampon. Ask your brother if he can grab you a tampon.’ And then have men involved in this process and helping out their female friends and their non-binary friends.”
And Lee said while the vandalism was a negative experience, support from the student body overall was positive.
“And now more and more people are aware of this stigma and our club in general and want to support us,” Lee said.