NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Lack of access to female hygiene products such as pads and tampons continues to create a burden for students across Tennessee who end up missing school monthly.
That's at least the reality for many low-income students in Nashville who choose to skip school activities and miss important instructional time for several reasons including fear of embarrassment.
Dr. Lakisha Simmons, a Belmont University associate professor and founder of The Achiever Academy, started the Nashville Period Project in 2018 to provide free products to help keep students in school during their period.
Her recent effort installed two dispensers that offer pads at no cost at Jere Baxter Middle School. It's in collaboration with Community Achieves, a Metro Nashville Public Schools program offering products to more than 20 other schools in the district.
The dispensers, a first of their kind in Nashville, are located near the toilet paper of the bathrooms, which was recommended by many of the female students at the school. Simmons said Jere Baxter was chosen because it's considered to be the most in need.
"They now don't have to go to the counselor's office or the nurse's office and they can have what they need right in the bathrooms," Simmons told NewsChannel 5.
There are 260 students enrolled at the school, with 128 of them being girls. Out of the 167 total schools with Metro Nashville Public Schools, 23 of them are in the district's priority list including Jere Baxter Middle School.
"We've always had resources, but they would have to come out and ask us and sometimes the girls don't feel comfortable doing that; so they might miss school and they might stay at home," Community Achieves Site Manager Angelica Brooks-James said.
There are four boxes with 250 pads each available for the school. The Nashville Period Project is solely based on donations and will continue to raise money to re-fill the dispensers when needed for at least the rest of the semester.
"This amenity gives us access to personal items in a very discreet manner to address our needs. Several of my friends don't have the basic needs at home and some parents don't have enough money to buy these items," seventh grade student Kenia Waller said.
A 2018 survey by Always, a brand of feminine hygiene products, found one in five girls in the country left school early or missed school entirely because of lack of access to period products. "Missed school equals missed opportunities and a drop in confidence," the study said.
While the issue is widespread not just in the U.S. but across the world, figuring out exactly how many girls miss school in Nashville is a difficult task, according to Simmons. Aside from installing the dispensers, she had more than 100 girls take a survey to answer what their needs are and use of products to create a more concrete evidence. She will re-visit the girls at the end of the school year to administer another questionnaire on how everything went with the free products.
"We can get a little bit more concrete data on how often they miss school and activities, so we can quantify how big of an issue this truly is. I'm hoping that this will be good information to take back to Metro Nashville Public Schools," Simmons said.
The conversation surrounding access and affordability has recently received spotlight thanks to a proposed legislation, also known as the "tampon tax," that would include feminine hygiene products during Tennessee's annual sales-tax holiday. While Republican lawmakers showed opposition, supporters and sponsors of the bill including Senator Sara Kyle, D-Memphis, said the products are a necessity for girls going to school.
Kyle said that 1.8 million girls and women between ages 15 and 55 use the products.
"It honestly is a necessity, but we are taxed on those and that's an additional barrier. The state is going to lose more money if we have more girls who are not in school receiving the education they need to grow up and be a part of our community and contribute to our society," Simmons said.
Since it began, the Nashville Period Project collected and distributed more than 500,000 products. To learn more and help, click on this link.