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Schools don’t know to handle girls’ menstrual periods, and their education is suffering because of it

Policies at a charter school network allegedly force some girls to bleed through their pants. The scandal points to a bigger problem.

A student at one of the schools in Chicago’s Noble Network of Charter Schools in 2012.
A student at one of the schools in Chicago’s Noble Network of Charter Schools in 2012.
M. Spencer Green/AP
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

For some students at the Noble Network of Charter Schools in Chicago, getting your period means being forced to bleed through your pants, according to an NPR story published Monday.

The schools’ discipline policies are allegedly so strict that some girls bleed on themselves while waiting for a bathroom break — and then are offered ways to cover up that could embarrass them even more.

The 17 schools in Noble’s network have been criticized for extreme discipline. Students earn “demerits” for infractions like dyeing their hair or talking during silent periods that can last essentially all day, Dusty Rhodes reported at NPR Illinois in April. Students who get too many demerits get detention and could risk failing a grade. One way to get demerits, according to the schools’ handbook, is being in the hallway during class without an adult escort.

That escort requirement can leave girls with no way to go the bathroom without breaking the rules, even if they’re on their period, according to a follow-up published Monday, also by Rhodes.

“We have (bathroom) escorts, and they rarely come so we end up walking out (of class) and that gets us in trouble,” a student at one of the schools texted Rhodes. “But who wants to walk around knowing there’s blood on them?”

Bloodstains are a big enough problem that some schools have come up with dress code workarounds to help, Rhodes reports — but some of these end up broadcasting to the whole school that a girl just stained her pants while on her period.

A spokesperson for Noble Network said the NPR reports were inaccurate and that students are allowed to use the bathroom without an escort in an emergency, especially if they are menstruating.

But the controversy around Noble comes in the midst of a bigger movement, in which activists, politicians, and voters around the country are recognizing how important it is for students to have access to tampons and pads at school. Students who can’t get menstrual products — either because they can’t afford them or because they can’t visit the bathroom to use them — may end up skipping class during their period or being forced to put up with the discomfort and embarrassment of walking around school in bloody clothes.

Legislators in several states have passed laws guaranteeing free menstrual products in schools, because they recognize that students can’t be full and equal participants in class if they’re worried about meeting their basic bodily needs. But at least according to NPR, that recognition hasn’t made its way to everyone at Noble.

Noble’s critics say its policies shame teenage girls

Discipline policies at Noble schools struck some former teachers as excessive and even racist, Rhodes reported in early April. The dress code at the schools is especially strict, according to Rhodes, requiring students to wear khakis, black leather belts, black dress shoes, and school-branded shirts. Failure to wear a belt earns a student enough demerits for an automatic two- to three-hour detention.

The Noble handbook stipulates that “hair can be colored or highlighted only in a natural human hair color.” One former teacher, Ann Baltzer, told Rhodes that a black student once came to school with braids partially dyed maroon, the school’s color, and was told she would be barred from class. So the student asked Baltzer to color in her braids with a black marker.

“To have a system that results in a white woman having to color on a black woman’s hair, and if I don’t, she’s excluded from education, there’s something wrong with that,” Baltzer said.

Ann Baltzer (far left) with students at Noble Network’s Hansberry College Prep school
Ann Baltzer (far left) with students at Noble Network’s Hansberry College Prep school.
Courtesy of Ann Baltzer

A spokesperson for Noble Network said the NPR reports mischaracterized the schools. An escort is generally required for routine bathroom trips, but exceptions are made for emergencies, the spokesperson said.

“Noble absolutely accommodates our students during menstruation, including bathroom trips whenever the student needs one,” said Constance Jones Brewer, the president of Noble Network, in a statement to Vox. “To allege that Noble does anything other than protect the health and hygiene of its students — or to suggest that it allows or enables their humiliation — runs counter to everything we stand for and is an affront to our teachers and staff who work so hard for our students every single day.”

Some schools in the Noble Network have made changes to the dress code policy specifically to address the issue of girls bleeding through their pants, teachers told Rhodes: Girls are allowed to tie a sweater around their waist to cover the stain. An administrator then emails staff with the name of the girl in question, so she doesn’t get demerits for being out of dress code.

However, having your bloodstained pants effectively pointed out to the whole staff at your school isn’t exactly a perfect solution to the problem, as Gene Demby of NPR pointed out on Twitter. “Imagine being a menstruating teenager and having an email being sent out to the school’s entire staff about that fact,” he wrote.

Stains are “not 100% preventable for factors that are private to each student, but when they happen, our schools provide supportive solutions as quickly as possible,” Brewer said. “This includes, at the student’s discretion, the option to borrow clean uniform items from the main office, or the choice to wear a covering, at which point staff are notified that the student is not out of dress code and should be accommodated accordingly.”

At one Noble school, Pritzker College Prep, female students lobbied the administration to change the dress code to help them conceal bloodstains. “If the Noble Network allowed students to wear black and navy pants in addition to khakis, the school would still be able to maintain the professional atmosphere without causing girls to be distracted and uncomfortable due their periods, which are natural and inevitable,” wrote Alva Chavez, a Pritzker student, in the school newspaper in 2017.

In response, administrators at Pritzker decided to require all students to wear black pants instead of khakis. Pants must still have belt loops, and “only pants with ‘internal’ back pockets or no back pockets are permitted; pockets may not be attached to the exterior,” according to the school paper. Other schools in the Noble Network still require khaki pants, according to Rhodes.

Two of the students who spearheaded the change, Nadia Segura, 19, and Priscilla Bautista, 18, told Vox that it was necessary not because of school bathroom policies but because teenagers’ periods can be unpredictable and stains show easily on khaki pants. While escorts are generally required in order to use the bathroom during class, teachers at their school are understanding if they need accommodations due to their periods, the students said — Segura mentioned that once when she stained her pants, a teacher let her meet an escort at the bathroom rather than wait for one to come to the classroom.

Segura did say that tying a sweater around your waist, a solution some girls used at Pritzker before the change, had problems. “People knew why you had your sweater around your waist,” she said, and having to wear one “made girls feel less confident.”

That’s one reason she and Bautista — along with some students they’ve heard from at other Noble schools — support allowing black pants at all Noble schools, not just Pritzker. Since the dress code change, Segura said, “I can walk around without feeling like there’s a target on my pants.”

The Noble controversy comes at a time of increased attention to “menstrual equity” and school discipline policies

The allegations at Noble come at a time of growing nationwide understanding of the ways that lack of access to menstrual products can affect students’ success at school. When Bautista and Segura surveyed Pritzker students about the possibility of a dress code change, they found that an “overwhelming” number of girls had missed school because they were worried about staining their pants, Segura said.

Around the country, lawmakers are mandating free tampons and pads in school so that girls who can’t afford them can come to class without worrying about staining their clothes. A 2016 law made the products free in New York City schools. “No young woman should face losing class time because she can’t afford or simply cannot access feminine hygiene products,” said New York City Council member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, the sponsor of the law.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York recently announced a similar requirement at the state level, and California and Illinois already require schools to offer free menstrual products, according to USA Today. Bautista said that because of the Illinois law, the products are now available in the bathrooms at Pritzker. Such measures are part of a growing movement toward “menstrual equity,” or ensuring that everyone who menstruates has access to the products they need to be comfortable and participate fully in society during their periods. Efforts to repeal the “tampon tax,” sales tax on menstrual products, are also part of this movement.

Meanwhile, harsh discipline policies at charter schools — especially those serving primarily students of color — have become the subject of scrutiny in recent years. At Success Academy, a network of charter schools in New York City enrolling mostly low-income students of color, students sometimes urinated on themselves during practice tests, former staffers told the New York Times in 2015, either because they weren’t allowed to go to the bathroom or because they felt so much pressure to do well that they didn’t ask.

Some critics say school policies that emphasize perfect adherence to inflexible rules, with demerits handed out for infractions, end up reinforcing racial disparities when applied in predominantly low-income, nonwhite schools. Julia Fisher, a former teacher at one such charter school, wrote in the Washington Post in 2016 that the discipline policy at her former employer “holds that no academic work can be done until and unless the classroom reaches perfect behavioral compliance. Yet no one demands such compliance of more-privileged kids.” Thus, she wrote, schools like hers “re-create the racial gap they aim to eliminate.”

Racial disparities in school discipline are a problem across the country, according to a report issued in April by the Government Accountability Office. In 2013-’14, the most recent year for which data is available, black students represented 15.5 percent of public school students but 39 percent of suspensions. According to the New York Times, the gap was especially wide at charter schools. And as Vox’s P.R. Lockhart has reported, dress code policies may play a particularly important role in the overdisciplining of black girls.

Ultimately, the controversy at Noble points to bigger concerns about whether school discipline systems and dress codes are really helping students learn — or subjecting them to shame and stigma. And it’s a reminder that students need access to menstrual products and clean clothes in order to be equal participants at school.

“If you’re constantly worried about staining your pants,” Segura said, “your brain isn’t focusing on what’s being taught in class. Instead, your brain is focused on this worry that you have.”

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