It’s been a longstanding concern for some students at Montclair High School: If a menstruating student needs a hygiene product urgently — and doesn’t have one — the closest location to get one is the nurse’s office. 

“This system is inefficient because it forces students to leave class, walk to the bathroom, find out that they are on their period, then go find the nurse’s office, then ask for a pad or tampon (when the nurse is potentially busy), then put in the tampon or put on the pad in the nurse’s bathroom, then find their way back to their class,” a group of students from MHS’ National Organization for Women club and the Montclair Menstrual Club — an out-of-school student group that aims to destigmatize menstruation — told Montclair Local in a shared statement.

Add to that: Not everyone knows the products are available in the nurse’s office, they said. Periods can be sensitive for some people to discuss. And not everyone who gets a period identifies as female, or is ready to out themselves as transgender or genderqueer. 

But for a time in 2017, current and former students say, that wasn’t the case: 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 recalls. Then-Principal James Earle supported the idea, but NOW didn’t have enough money to continue to replenish the boxes for the full year, she said.

And though Salamon’s recollection of what happened the next year under then-Principal Anthony Grosso differs from a short email he sent to Montclair Local, the boxes never came back. Members of NOW and the Montclair Menstrual Club are hopeful, as students prepare to return to school buildings for in-person learning after a year away during the coronavirus pandemic, that could soon change. 

There’s been an active discussion on Montclair-based social media groups and in the teens’ own circles after law professor Bridget Crawford wrote a blog post about MHS’ history with the feminine products for in March. And current Vice Principal Reginald Clark has been “amazingly supportive” toward the NOW club and the students’ concerns, they said — but they expect to need buy-in from several people in the administration. 

Principal Jeffrey Freeman, schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds, Business Administrator Emidio D’Andrea and Board of Education President Latifah Jannah have not yet responded to messages from Montclair Local seeking comment.

Differing accounts

Salamon, a 2020 MHS graduate, said NOW members went to Grosso in 2018 with the hope of bringing the boxes back, with better funding — and were told he and the school nurse had concerns. 

Salamon said the students 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. 

Salamon 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. Crawford’s blog post also says the principal raised that concern, though the account in the post isn’t attributed to anyone with firsthand knowledge of the discussions. 

“I don’t even know what to say about how ludicrous this assertion was — completely unrealistic, not to mention painful,” Salamon said.

Grosso, in his email to Montclair Local, disputes that account.

“Under my leadership at Montclair High School, the concern about vodka-soaked tampons was not an issue that was brought up nor was it brought to our attention,” he wrote. “Our administrative team worked with the NOW Club, National Organization of Women, to find sustainable solutions for feminine products in the high school. This issue was collaborated in conjunction with district leadership.”

His message didn’t say what if any steps were taken, or what solutions were found. Montclair Local has sent a follow-up message seeking more information.

Crawford said the suggestion about vodka is ridiculous on several levels. For one thing, she said, once a tampon becomes wet, it loses its shape, and is therefore impossible to insert anywhere. Additionally, vodka would cause pain and irritation on coming into contact with the genital region. 

Fighting ‘period poverty’

Several student groups have taken on projects to combat “period poverty” — supplying students who can’t afford or otherwise have difficulty getting access to hygiene products.

The Montclair Menstrual Club worked with restaurant Cafe Moso and Time’s Up Montclair (a local student club affiliated with the national group to fight sexual harassment) earlier this year to create kits for distribution, and packaged more than 5,000 items, the students from Montclair Menstrual Club and NOW said. Montclair Menstrual Club also helped at Montclair Mutual Aid’s menstrual product table for that group’s recent Glenfield Park distribution.

Crawford specializes in tax law. It is through that work that she did research on the “tampon tax” — the charging of sales tax on feminine hygiene products. New Jersey is just one of 20 states that have either eliminated taxes on feminine products, or did not tax them in the first place — though most health products are untaxed.

It was during her research that Crawford learned about the situation at Montclair High School, though Crawford said for reasons of privacy she could not reveal who had spoken to her about the issue.

Her article generated some strong reactions from the community, including from parents.

“Frankly, the fact that the students have to be the ones advocating for this puts a burden on them,” Magda Schaler-Haynes, whose eldest daughter attends MHS, said.

Among the students, there is optimism that the project could move forward. NOW and Montclair Menstrual Club are hoping to have continued discussions with school and district leadership, and hope to continue holding drives and fundraisers as needed, the groups said. 

The groups would also like to see products be made available in middle school and elementary school restrooms, since some students may start their periods relatively early. 

“We’ve all been really happy about the support from the community,” Maddie Blackburn, a senior at MHS who is also a member of NOW, said.

Blackburn said being in remote learning has caused many people to reflect on what an ideal school would look like. With the prospect of returning to school, and with new leadership at the school, there is an opportunity to bring the topic back to the forefront, she said. 

Salamon said it’s a chance for Montclair to affirm its identity as a progressive town.

So many other towns, cities and even entire countries have made period products free and available in all public schools and public buildings, and there’s no reason that Montclair shouldn’t do the same,” she said.

In an earlier version of this post, a reference to Montclair High School Vice Principal Reginald Clark incorrectly named another school official.