GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

July 2, 2008

Gloucester: Mayor plans of 'listening posts' on teen pregnancy

By Patrick Anderson

Neighborhood "listening post" meetings employed earlier this year to gather public opinion on the future of Gloucester's waterfront are now being planned to discuss the issue of teen pregnancy.

Mayor Carolyn Kirk, who launched a series of five citizen meetings on the harbor this spring, said yesterday that the roundtable format of the listening posts promotes open debate and gives residents a sense of freedom often not available in more traditional committee meetings.

"What I learned from the harbor meetings is that, when it is an emotionally charged topic, another format is needed," Kirk said. "We had a structure, but people could speak freely. There was no pressure that it was the final say so."

Kirk, who presented the idea to the School Committee for the first time Monday night, said yesterday that no dates had been set for the meetings, which were likely to take place at city schools. Around five or six separate events would take place. After that, a public hearing on the merits of the policy would be held by the School Committee on the issue.

While the listening posts are going on this summer, the School Committee will be in the midst of a more formal sequence of special meetings to analyze and deliberate on a school policy toward reducing teen motherhood.

The first of those meetings, announced this week, will be held July 23 and will feature a "blue ribbon panel" of public health experts organized by Gloucester Director of Public Health Jack Vondras, who has spearheaded the mayor's study of the issue and is acting as a liaison to the School Committee.

Experts comprising the panel will include Dr. Karen Hacker, a physician at the Institute for Community Health and Teen Connection in Somerville, and Dr. Lauren Smith, medical director of the state Department of Public Health, who has said she supports providing confidential access to contraceptives in schools.

A PowerPoint slideshow presentation including information provided by the panel is expected to be presented to the committee and a simplified version at the listening posts.

In addition to scheduling meetings, Kirk this week also announced that the city would match any dollars the School Department spends to address the issue of teen pregnancy and that Vondras is actively seeking grants to provide further funding for a city response.

With an international media presence drawn by the surge in pregnancies still evident in Gloucester, Kirk said she was examining whether violations of student medical confidentiality had taken place at the high school and precipitated the intense scrutiny.

Yesterday Kirk said she planned to send a letter to Northeast Health System, the company that runs Addison Gilbert Hospital and the high school's health center, asking for a review of the safeguards it puts in place to keep student information confidential.

She said some of the controversy sparked by the issue could have been avoided if the School Committee had been involved in it earlier.

School Superintendent Christopher Farmer said the committee had been informed "within the calendar month" the school administration had become aware of it last fall.

Patrick Anderson can be reached at panderson@gloucestertimes.com.