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Want to help Maryland’s youth? Hire more health instructors and stop arguing over common sense legislation | COMMENTARY

Megan Enriquez, 16, is the founder and president of the local chapter of PERIOD, which has a mission to help end menstruation poverty and stigma. She displays one of the bags in her home in Boca Raton Florida on Friday, October 2, 2020 that her group has been assembling with pads and tampons along with a note of encouragement for needy women.
Megan Enriquez, 16, is the founder and president of the local chapter of PERIOD, which has a mission to help end menstruation poverty and stigma. She displays one of the bags in her home in Boca Raton Florida on Friday, October 2, 2020 that her group has been assembling with pads and tampons along with a note of encouragement for needy women. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

You may have heard that things are quite different in the operations of this year’s Maryland General Assembly. Yes, there is virtual participation and livestreaming of sessions not experienced before. However, our organization watches all bills that come through session, carefully considering the impact of legislation and reforms affecting gender justice. And from what we’ve seen thus far, our legislators are still subject to distractions by those who do not want to acknowledge the basic rights and realities of our youth.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on many disparities we face in our state. For example, period poverty is the notion that not all people who menstruate can afford pads and tampons, preventing active participation in work or school. Food banks and community action centers report that donations of these products are constantly in demand. House Bill 205 and Senate Bill 427 requires Maryland public schools to provide free, size appropriate maxi-pads and tampons in at least one restroom in each primary school and two restrooms in each secondary school by Oct. 1 and most restrooms by August 2025. The legislation seeks to increase school attendance and extracurricular participation among menstruating students, who lack access to such products, and to decrease peer harassment that contributes to poor school climate.

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What has happened so far? The Senate version has removed elementary schools from the bill, although 30% to 50% of menstruating students begin their period before the age of 12, and as early as age 8, with Black and brown youth starting earlier than their white peers. The requirement of a dispenser installed in at least one male-designated restroom in secondary schools for transgender and intersex youth has also been stripped. Can we really pretend that the biological needs of these youth don’t exist, especially among those with irregular menstrual cycles? We hope that the House of Delegates will amend S.B. 427 back to its original form to reflect the real needs of our youth.

Even before the pandemic, parenting students in our secondary public schools have been struggling to secure affordable and reliable child care — sorely needed under remote learning mandates — and to understand their overall education rights. H.B. 401 and S.B. 438 seek to help these students increase their enrollment and attendance by requiring that appropriate school personnel help connect these students to existing child care and transportation resources. The bill calls for school districts to establish policies on how to assist pregnant, expectant and parenting students, so they may know what supports are available and make arrangements to access them as early as possible. It also requires schools to identify appropriate lactation spaces, to allow students to leave class to pump and to list in the student handbooks the right to excused absences under Maryland law.

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But because both educational equity and reproductive rights organizations are in support of the bills, abortion opponents are not, although the bill is clearly designed to assist students who have already made the pregnancy decision and chosen to parent. This is unnecessarily distracting legislators. There were 2,645 births to teenagers under the age of 19 in our state in 2018. During the 2017-18 academic year, 4,876 students were categorized as “whereabouts unknown.” Maryland’s public high schools reported a graduation rate of 86.6% in 2019, the lowest rate in recent years, attributing to thousands of students dropping out. Let’s pass this legislation and help these youth stay in school, on track to graduation and economic security.

Other bills this session have sought to change or add to the state’s health education framework, without bothering to see if the standards already exist, such as sex trafficking, sexting and fertility awareness. Senate Joint Resolution 5 called for adolescent girls to be taught the rhythm method — tracking ovulation and menstrual cycles — as a means of contraception, ignoring that it is one of the least effective methods and putting the responsibility only on the person with the potential to become pregnant. This also ignores raising awareness of barrier methods to prevent not only pregnancy, but the spread of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. The bill was pulled two days before the hearing, probably due to the public outcry of it being tone deaf and sexist. It was quite a distraction. Perhaps we should have been asking questions such as if sex education took a back seat in remote learning mandates for the past year.

If legislators want to improve health outcomes of youth, we should be investing in schools hiring more certified health education instructors to more effectively cover evidence-based lesson plans in each of our school districts. And we should be focused on the mission at hand:

meeting youth where they really are in their lives.

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Diana Philip (diana@prochoicemd.org) is executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland.

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