By next fall, every Dallas ISD high school and middle school will have pad and tampon dispensers in their bathrooms.

Students at Skyline High School became experts on campus blueprints, procurement processes and budget scenarios all to avoid a common, panic-inducing problem: unexpectedly getting a period without a tampon or pad in reach.

The teen girls wanted free feminine hygiene products in high school bathrooms.

“We want menstruators to be able to focus on their education and not worry about bleeding out in school, which is every menstruator’s worst nightmare,” said high school senior Vanessa Medellin.

Young women and girls are frequently surprised by their period during the school day and are often left with few viable options. Students text friends for a bathroom-stall delivery or craft a makeshift pad out of wadded up toilet paper.

But in worst case scenarios, students head home early and miss class. A 2018 survey found that about 20% of American students had departed school before the end of the day because they didn’t have access to the appropriate feminine hygiene products.

Skyline students were commiserating on their personal experiences with this issue when they realized there was an easy solution: Dallas ISD could provide free tampons and pads for students in high schools and middle schools.

Almost half a decade after the initial discussion, the district has installed dispensers stocked with free products in bathrooms at every high school and will soon do the same at each middle school.

Students in the IGNITE organization, which fosters political engagement in young women, methodically tackled the problem of not having access to menstruation products, which is sometimes referred to as period poverty.

Aylin Segura, a Dallas College student and Skyline graduate, remembers an afternoon spent trekking around the high school campus to check off all the bathrooms on the schematic as the teens researched dispensers and calculated how many bathrooms would need them. She wanted enough dispensers and products for every student and faculty member who needed them.

As the Skyline students lobbied administrators about the need to offer tampons and pads, some school officials suggested they could just go to the nurse’s office. But Skyline enrolls more than 4,000 students. A small group could drain the nurse’s supplies in a day, IGNITE members argued.

Another concern was whether some students would steal all of the available pads and tampons, IGNITE facilitator Brooke López said.

“That was a number one concern for some reason even though there is no evidence that that has ever happened really in any school,” López said. Besides, if someone did take the products, they likely needed them and didn’t have access to them in another way.

Eventually, the IGNITE members presented their plans to school leaders, including trustee Karla Garcia and David Bates, the assistant superintendent of maintenance and facility services.

Garcia, who was involved in IGNITE as a student at Irma Lerma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School, was quick to support the teens’ work. She saw their menstrual equity campaign as a way to improve the in-school experience for young women and give them an opportunity to learn how advocacy works.

The students’ message also resonated with Bates, who had an elementary school daughter at the time. This would soon be an issue that impacted her, he said.

It also represented an inequity only young female students had to cope with as their male peers didn’t share the same concerns.

“We want to provide for kids that need us in every aspect,” Bates said. Menstrual products should be no different than providing toilet paper in a bathroom or meals in the cafeteria, he said.

Bates used the students’ research to look into how much he could carve out of his annual budget. The district installed dispensers in Skyline as part of a pilot program in 2019 and then in all high schools at the beginning of last year. The plan was to do the same in middle schools soon after, but unexpected COVID-19 expenses delayed that rollout.

Dallas administrators now hope to offer free tampons and pads to all middle and high school students by August 1. The five-year cost will be about $100,000, Bates estimated, noting the district won’t have a concrete number until all students return to on-campus learning.

Dallas ISD, the second largest school district in the state, may be the first in Texas to embrace such an initiative, said López, IGNITE’s club facilitator.

Graduated IGNITE members celebrated when they found out that the dispensers were going into campuses, former Skyline teacher Martha Williams said.

“I had college students from UT texting me, and they were just in tears and couldn’t believe it finally happened,” Williams said.

Medellin was one of the few students who was part of the entire effort from start to finish. She joined IGNITE as a freshman and will graduate this year from Skyline.

It’s hard to believe the club’s prolonged efforts are coming to fruition and students across the district will benefit from their advocacy, she said.

“I smiled big when I realized the dispensers are getting refilled or were empty because they had been used,” Medellin said.