GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

September 24, 2008

Pregnancy draft policy to be aired

By Patrick Anderson

The first draft of Gloucester Public Schools' policy responding to a rise in teen pregnancy includes maintaining in-school, day-care services for students, offering sex education that teaches effective use of contraceptives as well as abstinence, and laying out three choices on its most challenging question: whether to offer birth control in the school-based health clinic.

The options, which include blanket student access to confidential contraceptives, no distribution of contraceptives (either condoms or birth control pills) and an in-between choice of contraceptive availability only with parental consent, are outlined in the draft as a starting point for public discussion and School Committee deliberation.

Written by Superintendent Christopher Farmer and released yesterday, the draft is based on the comments of the School Committee and testimony of a three-expert panel that spoke on teen pregnancy in July. The School Committee is scheduled to discuss the draft tonight and make any desired changes before posting it on the district Web site.

It was created as a guide for the special public meeting discussion on teen pregnancy scheduled for next Wednesday as well as for the policy deliberations and vote expected from the School Committee later in the fall.

School Committee Chairman Greg Verga said yesterday that the draft represented a summary of the recommendations and thinking on teen pregnancy to date and could be added to based on the concerns or feelings of residents. It is in no way meant to limit public discussion next Wednesday, he said.

"The purpose of this is to summarize what we have heard to this point," Verga said. "Nothing is off the table as long as it relates to the issue. These are the key components of discussion and the purpose of the meetings is to see if we need to add anything to it."

Positions that conflict with the recommendations in the draft — such as providing abstinence-only sex education or closing the in-school, day-care center — will be fair game at the meeting, Verga said.

The schools have been working to codify a policy on teen pregnancy since staff at the Gloucester High School health clinic last year reported soaring numbers of students seeking pregnancy tests and becoming pregnant. In all, 18 girls in the high school were reportedly pregnant during the last school year, and reports that a number of the pregnancies were intentional — topped by a Time magazine report of an alleged pregnancy "pact" — thrust the school and the city into the global media spotlight.

An advisory board made up of health clinic staff, representatives from Addison Gilbert Hospital, the schools and city intended to issue recommendations on a response to the pregnancies, but dissolved after hospital officials expressed reluctance to consider providing confidential access to contraceptives.

The draft document keeps language about reproductive health services extremely general, with the most expansive option being the provision of "a comprehensive range of reproductive health services" and the most limited being the provision of "a restricted range of reproductive health services at the GHS health clinic (to exclude the prescription or provision of contraceptives)."

That option could likely reduce reproductive health services to things such as pregnancy tests.

The middle option in the draft document would provide contraceptives, but require parental permission.

During discussions this summer, School Committee members have discussed a number of variations on parental consent, including clauses requiring parents to sign if they want their children to receive reproductive health services or sign if they don't want them to.

Another option discussed has been to refer students to the soon-to-be-opened Gloucester Family Health Center on the campus of Addison Gilbert Hospital for services.

One reason cited for not providing contraceptives at the school-based clinic is to keep confidence and trust of parents in the clinic high, something that may be compromised if birth control is distributed without their consent.

The draft recommends working to "maintain the confidence of parents" in the health center.

Farmer said yesterday the draft was only a starting point — and he had already been contacted by School Committee members about making language changes to the sections about contraceptives.

"My view is that the public meeting will be much more useful if those attending have an idea of some of the issues the School Committee is interested in," Farmer said. "But that isn't to say they will be the only issues discussed."

In addition to dealing with the contraception issue, the draft recommends identifying students in need of counseling services, examining programs that teach healthy relationships and a program of comprehensive sex education. A working group has been established this year to review the current sex education curriculum in Gloucester and decide how best to supplement it.

In discussions with the School Committee earlier this year, Farmer has said he favors a sex education curriculum that teaches abstinence but also safe sex.

The School Committee earlier this month issued a vote of confidence for the in-school day-care program, but has said the subject can still be discussed.

The School Committee is scheduled to meet at 7 tonight at City Hall.

Patrick Anderson can be reached at panderson@gloucestertimes.com