The city has untied itself from the "listening posts" on teen pregnancy in order to keep the public forums, now called conversations, intimate and media free.
Last night, in a decision without a vote, the School Committee agreed to remove itself from planning and participation in the upcoming "conversations on teen pregnancy" after receiving an opinion from city legal council that involvement from an elected government board could subject the meetings to Massachusetts Open Meeting Law, and the press.
"My recommendation is that conversations carry on, but schools disengage from the process," said Mayor Carolyn Kirk, also a School Committee member. "The conversations were never meant to be a substitute for public meetings. They are a tool, a public service for the community."
Another option presented to the committee in the legal opinion, written by Acting General Council Suzanne Egan, were for the meetings to be conducted by the superintendent's office.
But committee members said they didn't want confusion or a legal "gray area" about the conversations distract the community from productive discussions on the subject of teen pregnancy.
Some committee members did express regret that they would not be able to use comment from the meetings when they decide on new policies to limit teen pregnancy in the fall.
With the schools now completely absent in the conversations, the Public Conversations Project, the Watertown-based nonprofit who proposed the format for the forums and providing the manpower to conduct them, will be on its own to hold the meetings without city guidance.
Kirk said she had not asked the Conversations Project about whether it would hold the meetings if the schools or city are not involved.
Before the meeting, Conversations Project officers shared plans for the conversation meetings much more intimate than the "listening post" ideas initially described to collect public opinion. The three meetings planned for the first two weeks in September will themselves be broken up into five smaller meetings apiece, according to a release from the group.
Public Conversations Project President Cherry Muse yesterday painted a picture of the events that may resemble a counseling session more than a public hearing geared toward policy debate.
"We try to turn the temperature down," Muse said. "Before you can deal with the policy issue, you have to deal with feelings. We allow people to speak in small groups where the rhetoric is turned down and people can get to the issues."
In the conversations format, the two adult meetings and one youth meeting planned will be made up of 40 Gloucester residents each. Once put together, the conversation groups will be broken up into five smaller groups of eight people each, who will be joined by a trained "facilitator."
Residents wishing to participate will need to register for the events in advance, although the site or method of registration has not yet been set. Officials have also not set a time or place for the sessions.
Those who register will be asked to fill out a survey that will give organizers a sense of what is important to them. Muse said the intention is to make up the groups with people who might have divergent values or positions on the best way to deal with the surge in teen pregnancies at Gloucester High School this past school year. A total of 18 students became pregnant during the school year, at least some of them apparently on purpose.
Many of the facilitators will come from Gloucester and will assist in forming productive groups.
"There is a desire to seek a diverse group of people in the community," Muse said. "We seek people who are on other sides of the issue. It doesn't accomplish much to have people who are all saying the same thing."
The nonprofit Public Conversations Project, which is funded by the William and Flora Hewitt Foundation, has mediated dialogues on contentious social issues in a number of communities over several years.
Muse said one of the issues the group has dealt with most similar to Gloucester's is a debate over references to homosexuality in public school classrooms in Newton. In those conversations — like those planned for Gloucester — the organization believes the press will not be allowed to cover the events.
Muse said it is a matter of fostering an open and candid discussion where publicity-shy residents can participate.
"If I was a member of a community and dealing with an issue like this, I would not be able to speak freely if I thought there would be a microphone in my face," Muse said. "It could have a chilling effect."
Patrick Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org