The way Cherylene Stritenberg says she sees it, the issue comes down to cost. A board member with the Eagle Point School District near Medford, Stritenberg is also a mom. She wants more money for school supplies and books, she said.

And she’s concerned that a state law that goes into full effect in the 2022-23 school year to require public K-12 schools, community colleges and universities to provide free menstrual products in all bathrooms, including bathrooms designated for boys, is an added expense in a state that already fights to graduate much more than 80 percent of its high school students.

Acting on her own, she’s petitioned the Oregon Department of Education to roll back the Menstrual Dignity Act, to ask that it require schools to provide free tampons and pads “in at least two bathrooms,” single handedly triggering a two-week public comment period that ends July 20.

To pay for the bill, the Oregon Legislative Revenue Office estimated in 2021 that the state would redirect about $5.6 million from the State School Fund in the first biennium — real money but a tiny fraction of the overall budget of $9.3 billion. It’s enough to pay for about 30 teachers per year in a statewide system of 31,000.

In the Eagle Point district, which has fewer than 4,000 students, annual costs won’t top $17,000. Still, Stritenberg — who also has petitioned the state to lift COVID-19 vaccination requirements for teachers and volunteers — says the money would be better used elsewhere.

“My hope is that we can reevaluate and come to a better solution that is financially responsible and beneficial to those who need it,” Stritenberg told the Oregonian/Oregonlive.

A bipartisan bill

On few things do Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tina Kotek and her Republican rival Christine Drazan appear to agree — but one of them is the Menstrual Dignity Act.

Both Kotek, the former speaker of the House, and Drazan, former House minority leader, voted for the bill on June 24, 2021. In fact, it won overwhelming bipartisan support in the Oregon House, with all but one representative, a Republican, voting for it. Advocates hailed its promise of free universal access to period products as an important step toward alleviating unnecessary shame and expense for students.

The bill as originally introduced required schools to provide period products in gender-neutral and girls’ bathrooms. The final version of the bill, though, defined “bathrooms” to include those designated for boys, to provide access to transgender and non-binary students.

An aide to Drazan put an asterisk on her yes vote. “[S]he believes young women, particularly those that come from underprivileged backgrounds, should have access to basic feminine hygiene products regardless of their home life or personal circumstances,” said Trey Rosser, Drazan’s gubernatorial campaign manager. “She also firmly supports local control and believes school districts should have the ability to implement the law as they see fit.”

The bill faced more opposition in the Senate, where only one Republican, Sen. Tim Knopp of Bend, voted for it.

Oregon Rep. Ricki Ruiz, D-Gresham, served as chief sponsor and consulted with students across Oregon and other states before expanding the bill, he said.

“As we know, there’s a lot of our youth who don’t identify as female or male or are transitioning genders,” Ruiz said. “We wanted to respect that and make sure we provide these resources in all restrooms for folks who may be struggling to transition to a different restroom.”

In the 2021-22 school year, as the program rolled out, school districts had to provide free tampons and pads in “at least two bathrooms,” and they had discretion to pick which ones.

“This is for the students”

Several public school districts are already moving ahead with the broader requirement.

The Beaverton School District, Portland Public Schools and the David Douglas School District already have ordered dispensers for all bathrooms and are installing them, school officials said.

So far, Portland Public Schools has spent approximately $200,000 on products and dispensers, including larger units for gender-neutral and girls’ bathrooms and smaller units for boys’ bathrooms.

The Beaverton School District has spent close to $300,000. In all cases, that’s money the state will reimburse.

If Oregon were to roll back the rule, supportive districts might continue with the broader access, administrators said. Josh Gamez, chief facilities officer for the Beaverton School District, said the district would want to hear from its community first. “If the product is being used, we want to support that,” he said. “This is for the students.”

And David Douglas School District spokesperson Dan McCue said he hasn’t heard of any objections in his school district.

In Portland Public Schools, newly rebuilt campuses like Grant and Lincoln high schools offer gender-neutral restrooms, making the distinction between boys’ and girls’ restrooms less meaningful.

For community colleges and universities, menstrual products are required only in educational buildings, meaning dorms are exempt from the rule, according to Kyle Thomas, legislative and policy director for the Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

West Coast comparisons

Oregon’s rule to require products in all bathrooms goes further than other similar laws on the West Coast.

California’s original bill required that all school bathrooms offer period products. High costs forced lawmakers to scale back the 2021 law to include only school bathrooms in grades six through 12, including at least one boys’ bathroom per school. Community colleges and state universities are required to have at least one location on campus to access these products. Schools are reimbursed by the state.

“It’s not ideal, but it’s been influential and gets us closer to a place where menstrual products are available in all bathrooms,” California Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, a Democrat, said.

In Washington, public and private K-12 schools are required to provide period products to grades six through 12 in all female bathrooms and in all gender-neutral bathrooms. Community colleges and universities are also included. If a school does not have a gender-neutral bathroom, they are required to put menstrual hygiene products in at least one male bathroom. Washington law also requires that grades three through five have access to products in at least one location.

In Oregon, the bill includes boys’ bathrooms for children as young as kindergarten.

“I think, in general, we wanted to include all restrooms because we never know who might need to use them,” Ruiz said.

Requiring access to menstrual products for students who are likely too young to use them is a waste of resources, said Stritenberg, who also worries that some children will misuse the products and cause damage to facilities.

“Don’t get me wrong I’m not opposed to making these products available, but requiring we divert funds from our state school funds to ensure they are included specifically in boys’ bathrooms is a misuse of those funds,” she said.

Petition in play

Stritenberg’s petition to narrow Oregon’s law requires that the Oregon Department of Education allow for response from the public before making a decision. The department will respond within 90 days after receiving the petition.

Stritenberg said she’s not acting on behalf of her school board. Instead, she came forward over questions she’s heard in her community.

Ruiz is confident the bill will remain intact, but he said he is open to making amendments in the next legislative session.

Daphne Ischer, 17, said she wants to see the broader rule stay in place. She recently graduated from Tualatin High School, where she was a member of the advocacy group PERIOD.

She also testified in favor of the Menstrual Dignity Act last year and said it’s important for transgender and non-gendered students to feel accepted — with menstrual products in any bathroom they may use.

“There’s not always gender-neutral bathrooms, there’s not always a lot and there’s not always complete access to them,” said Ischer.

Ischer also sees the universal presence of dispensers as an opportunity to start teaching younger students about periods and menstrual hygiene. All fourth and fifth grade teachers in Portland Public Schools will get menstruation kits for the upcoming school year, to give students in their classrooms visual aids.

“When we start these conversations in the classroom earlier, and those conversations continue, periods become less stigmatized,” Ischer said.

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