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July 25, 2008

Board eyes contraceptive options for school health clinic

Closing in on a vote over whether to provide in-school access to contraceptives, the School Committee is weighing a policy that would allow parents to opt their children out of reproductive health services, while still receiving other aspects of care available at Gloucester High School's health clinic.

In districts across the state and country, school health centers have used "opt-out clauses" in their parental consent forms to allow parents uncomfortable with their children getting birth control confidentially to avoid it, without avoiding the clinic altogether.

In the last year, Gloucester High School has pushed enrollment in its student health center from 77 percent to more than 90 percent, one of the higher participation rates in the state.

But as debate about contraception intensified this spring, many, including Principal Joseph Sullivan, feared that unchecked, confidential birth control or condom distribution would lead to mistrust between parents and the school, jeopardizing the number of students being helped by the clinic.

"It was good to see that it had worked in other communities," School Committee Chairman Greg Verga said of the parental opt-out yesterday. "My concern from the beginning was that you would have people opting out of the whole clinic. I would hate to see people not get the other benefits of the clinic."

Addressing the committee as one of its hand-picked experts at a City Hall forum Wednesday night, Dr. Karen Hacker, medical director of the Institute for Community Health in Cambridge, said schools that choose to offer contraceptives can choose from a "menu" of options — including blanket consent to reproductive health services, an option for parents to opt out of reproductive services, and a mechanism that requires parents to opt-in to the services if they want it for their children. The distribution of contraceptives at the high school has taken center stage in the wake of reports that 18 Gloucester High School students became pregnant this past school year, including a number who may have done so by choice. Wednesday's meeting featured a panel of health officials who recommended choices for a school community response.

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