Board of Education provides platform for student advocacy

By Jack McGuire

Whitman is full of politically active students; some march in front of the Capitol for issues like climate change, tie ribbons to their backpacks to commemorate victims of gun violence or participate in political activism clubs. But some students in Montgomery County have directly brought student advocacy to the county’s attention by testifying in front of policymakers at the MCPS Board of Education. This school year alone, 69 students have testified for a multitude of issues.

Two student activists — eighth grade student Sekayi Fraser, who is the Cabin John Middle School student body president, and Richard Montgomery sophomore Hana O’Looney —  made waves when they testified Jan. 13 and Jan. 15 respectively. Both students were advocating for issues within the same domain: access to quality hygiene products in MCPS schools.

Fraser’s path to appearing before the BOE was longer than most. Last year, he ran for student body president of Cabin John with the promise to bring a thicker, two-ply toilet paper to MCPS bathrooms. After months of failed attempts at getting Cabin John administrators to stock the bathrooms with two-ply toilet paper, Fraser finally decided that if he wanted to make real change, he would have to testify in front of the BOE. Fraser promptly contacted MCPS officials and set a date for when he wanted to testify — an opportunity available to all MCPS students, but one that not many take advantage of.

“Nothing would have ever happened if I never stepped out of my comfort zone and testified in front of the BOE,” Fraser said. “Testifying was really nerve racking, but I got through it knowing that I could make real change by speaking.”

Fraser finally got his chance to speak in front of the BOE Feb. 13 and issue his demand for the county to upgrade the toilet paper in student bathrooms from thin single-ply toilet paper to more comfortable two-ply paper. Fraser noticed that the bathrooms in the BOE offices were stocked with soft two-ply toilet paper, and he said MCPS students shouldn’t be denied the same luxury that Board Members have.

For the most part, parents, students and businesses across the county have supported Fraser and his proposal. Scott Attman, vice president of regional paper supplier Acme Paper and Supply Company, donated 80 cases of two-ply toilet paper to Cabin John after watching Fraser’s testimony online.

“People will see what Sekayi did and realize that they can and should stand up for any issue they believe in, no matter how small,” Attman said.

Some county officials have offered critical responses to Fraser’s proposal. Montgomery County Chief Operating Officer Andrew Zuckerman, among others, said that Fraser’s demand for two-ply paper is unrealistic because the aging pipes in MCPS schools are unable to process the extra ply of toilet paper.

“We have a lot of old pipes in our schools,”  Zuckerman said. “Before we stock bathrooms with two-ply paper, we’re going to have to conduct a study about how the thicker paper will affect the pipes.”

Officials are also concerned about the added cost of two-ply toilet paper. The county currently purchases 7,000 cases of toilet paper a year for $29.30 per case, totaling around $200,000 per year, according to Zuckerman. If the county upgraded to two-ply, the price would increase to a total of $236,250 annually. MCPS has $74.1 million to spend on school supplies and materials in the 2020 operating budget, and many county officials think that the county shouldn’t waste the money on toilet paper.

O’Looney is also worried about potential resources that would be diverted by upgrading the county’s toilet paper. A member of the board of directors for EmpowHER, an organization of MCPS students dedicated to female empowerment, O’Looney believes the county should instead invest in providing menstrual products in student bathrooms, and testified in front of the BOE and the Maryland House Ways and Means Committee outlining her argument.

“Menstrual hygiene is a human right, and all our students at public schools should not be expected to carry menstrual products around with them,” O’Looney said. “It’s a huge educational equity issue, and in a school system that claims to be as progressive as MCPS, it really needs to be something that happens.”

Because of the MCPS budget cap, O’Looney has found herself at least partially pitted against Fraser in the fight to see each initiative funded. 

“I know that two-ply toilet paper is something that students want, but this discussion shouldn’t be happening before we have access to a human right in public school bathrooms,”  O’Looney said. 

Regardless of whether O’Looney succeeds in getting students across MCPS access to menstrual products, her extensive advocacy has brought the issue of menstrual product accessibility to the forefront of the minds of students, parents and government officials across the state.

After hearing O’Looney’s testimony in the Maryland House Ways and Means Committee WHEN, Delegate Kirill Reznik reached out to O’Looney and worked with her to draft House Bill 0208, which would mandate public schools across Maryland provide students with access to menstrual products in all bathrooms by 2024.

“It takes a certain kind of person to want to become an advocate for an important issue,” Reznik said. “To do so for an issue that is so personal and be willing to talk about very personal and private things in front of lawmakers — you need to be a person of particular strength and commitment.”

Reznik and O’Looney are uncertain if the bill will pass, since Reznik drafted an almost identical bill last year that the Maryland Senate didn’t pass. In their dismissal, state senators cited the proposal’s lack of funding and its potential to impede county autonomy as grounds for its dismissal. The failure highlighted a need for county-level lobbying, O’Looney said.

O’Looney has also inspired change at other schools in the county, including Whitman and Earle B. Wood Middle School. After seeing her testimony on Instagram, students at Whitman and Wood initiated programs where they put pads and tampons in women’s restrooms.

The Whitman SGA started the Ladies Project, an initiative where female SGA members stock Whitman’s bathrooms with menstrual products.

“Her advocacy really inspired a lot of us in leadership,” said senior Maddie Menkes, who is the co-chair of the Ladies Project. “She showed us that this is a real issue for a lot of girls that needs to be addressed.”

O’Looney has bold plans for the future of her movement. She plans to lead a coalition of EmpowHer members to lobby for the new menstrual health bill proposed by Reznik and to organize a letter writing campaign that targets delegates that opposed the bill last year.

“Testifying and organizing these protests has been such an unbelievable experience for me,” O’Looney said. “Even if nothing happens, I feel like I’ve learned so much about advocacy and public policy.”

Fraser also found that arguing in front of the Board of Education has given him experience and skills that will help him succeed in life, he said.

“I’m only an eight grader from a random middle school in suburban Maryland,” Fraser said. “But something inside of me makes me feel like I’ve made some sort of an impact on people’s lives, even if it’s not for a super serious issue.”