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Lindenhurst students' activism gets results

Lindenhurst High School students Vanessa Igras, 16, left,

Lindenhurst High School students Vanessa Igras, 16, left, and Brooklyn Ratel, 16, right, are leaders of a group of students who brought reform in the school district when they questioned why free feminine hygiene products were not provided in the girls' bathrooms at the district's middle and high schools. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Lindenhurst students' efforts and research about access to feminine hygiene products internationally is leading to reform in their own schools, with the district moving to put dispensers in bathrooms and bring the system into compliance with a new state law.

The students, part of the Global Youth Action Alliance, were prepping earlier this month for an upcoming "Disrupting Education" week at Lindenhurst High School when they came across the law, which took effect July 1 and requires schools to provide free access to the hygiene products.

"I was shocked that this was a law in the first place, because nobody ever heard of it," said junior Vanessa Igras,16. "And I am glad they are doing something about it now, but I don’t think it should have been like this in the first place."

Linda Flannelly, the high school’s assistant principal, and students in the youth alliance who are participating in the schoolwide forum on sustainable development questioned district officials, seeking an explanation as to why such products were only available at the nurses' offices. They asked that sanitary pads and tampons be provided in the bathrooms as soon as possible.

Lindenhurst district officials responded, crediting the students' initiative and saying the dispensers were ordered on March 12 and will be installed by month's end.

“While our goal in providing the items in the nurses' office was always with the intention of doing what was in the best interest of our female students, we recognized, as a result of their expressed concern, that we were not meeting that goal and made the decision to place the order,” Superintendent Daniel Giordano said in a statement.

Under the new state legislation, "the district has worked to integrate these updated requirements into our buildings in the safest and most effective manner. … The well-being of our student body is our top priority," Giordano said.

The legislation, part of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's Women's Opportunity Agenda, states: “All elementary and secondary public schools in the state serving students in any grade from grade six through grade twelve shall provide feminine hygiene products in the restrooms of such school building or buildings. Such products shall be provided at no charge to students.”

In September, Cuomo reminded school leaders of the new law, saying, "As the 2018-19 school year begins, this new law will ensure all young women across the state have equal access to these essential products."

Officials with the state Education Department, asked this week about the law, said the "stigma and a lack of access to feminine hygiene products negatively impacts teen girls who miss valuable class time because the items they need are not readily available. By providing free menstrual products in school bathrooms, we remove barriers for some of our most vulnerable girls, helping them feel more confident and ensuring they spend more time in school." 

In April 2018, the department sent guidance to schools notifying them of the requirements. Department officials last week said they had heard from only one parent so far, in an district not on Long Island, regarding the issue.

The Lindenhurst students, upon discovering the situation in their schools, also had reached out to the Education Department.

In the course of their research, they became passionate about the subject. They learned how girls in developing countries — numbering in the millions worldwide — have been forced either to leave school for the duration of their menstrual cycles or drop out because of the lack of access to feminine hygiene products. The students also looked into concrete ways to help girls elsewhere, such as through donation programs.

"Everyone deserves the chance to feel comfortable, and it shouldn’t be looked down upon and shamed upon," Igras said, adding that she is concerned other schools are not following the new state law.

Brooklyn Ratel, 16, a sophomore who is with the Global Youth Action Alliance, had emailed the district soon after the girls learned of the law. She initially received a response saying the district would continue distributing the hygiene products in the nurses' offices.

Ratel said she is "extremely grateful" that school officials agreed to make the change and expand access.

"I thank our administrators for listening to the students of Lindenhurst and taking action where action was needed," she said.

Monday, the high school is kicking off its five days of "Disrupting Education," held in alliance with the United Nations and its Sustainable Development Global Goals for 2030. Those goals are aimed at efforts to end hunger, combat climate change, fight injustice and inequality, and make the world a better place, Flannelly said.

"Our students, parents, and staff will present TED Talks, lead hands-on workshops, Skype with students from around the world, take virtual global field trips, hold debates and panel discussions, volunteer locally and globally, and interact with expert guest speakers about the Global Goals," Flannelly said. "I just think the whole week is about modeling about how students can be empowered to bring about policy changes and to bring an awareness to the issues in the world and to demonstrate how they can impact policy change — even though they are just students."

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