By Patrick Anderson
Condoms and birth control pills can be distributed to students at Gloucester High School as long as their parents don't object, the School Committee has ruled, capping a policy debate over contraception that has divided the community since a steep rise in pregnancies was reported last year.
The unanimous decision, cast as a compromise by committee members, was greeted with enthusiasm by those who have supported expanded access to contraceptives, including some students and the former staff of the high school clinic, who resigned in protest of Addison Gilbert Hospital's handling of the issue at the end of the last school year.
"I am thrilled,' said Dr. Brian Orr, who was the medical director of the clinic before stepping down. "It is a win-win for everybody. Teens have access. Parents have opt-out. I think for the whole community, this is a great outcome for a horrible crisis."
Gloucester High School junior Pamela Tobey, who last week told the committee that a majority of students at the school supported gaining access to contraceptives, said she thought the School Committee had acted wisely.
"I am happy with their decision; it was a good choice," Tobey said.
But for many parents who a week earlier had told the committee they didn't feel the school should be giving out contraceptives, the inclusion of an opt-out clause did not make the new policy acceptable.
"My son told me he would rather not tell people what high school he went to," Glen Bresnahan of Essex Avenue said yesterday. "The School Committee listens to what everyone says and then just does what they were going to do all along. They should be ashamed."
In voting to provide a wide range of reproductive health services, the committee cited the testimony of three hand-picked public health experts who spoke at a hearing in July, all suggesting the public health benefits of contraceptives, including reducing teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, outweighed any risks.
The committee did not outline exactly which services would fall under the definition of "reproductive health," but based on the discussion, it would cover pregnancy tests and tests for sexually transmitted diseases, which were available last year.
Whether emergency contraceptives such as Plan B, known as the "morning after pill," would be included in reproductive services available at the clinic had not been discussed, according to conversations with School Committee members.
Parents who want their children to be able to use the high school clinic, but not have access to contraceptives, will be given an option to withdraw them from reproductive health services on a new, re-written clinic enrollment form.
Putting forth the strongest call for improved access to contraceptives at the high school, School Committee member Amy-Beth Healey recalled her own childhood and how difficult it was to talk to her parents about sex.
"I remember many kids who couldn't talk to their parents, but it didn't stop them or their boyfriends," Healey said.
Healey said the constitutional separation of church and state made religious objections an inappropriate basis to ban contraceptives as part of a public school's policy.
Nancy Harrison expressed the most reluctance on the committee toward allowing the prescription of birth control pills, because of possible medical complications for young woman.
But ultimately, Harrison said her concerns were not enough to stand in the way of the entire policy, which would benefit the community.
Before this week's vote, the committee had considered giving more control to parents over exactly which services would be available with a "menu" of options on the enrollment form that parents would check off.
Ultimately, suggestions from medical experts that such a system would make providing care overly cumbersome, led to a simpler plan.
"I think the feeling is that it would be too convoluted and take health issues away from the experts," School Committee Chariman Greg Verga said.
Verga said he hoped to have a draft of the new re-written enrollment form ready for review by the committee at its next meeting, Oct. 22.
The motion passed by the committee was carefully crafted by Superintendent Christopher Farmer to include a mechanism for parents to "remove" their students from reproductive health services, instead of placing the onus on students to get "parental consent" if they want the services.
In addition to approving contraceptives, the School Committee reaffirmed, for a second time, its support for the in-school day care program being run by Pathways For Children at the high school.
Before voting on the new contraceptives policy, Mayor Carolyn Kirk said she thought it important that abstinence components of the district's sex education policy be taught by those fully committed to the concept.
She also said she would like to see the health center advisory committee, which had discussed issues surrounding the high school health clinic before being dissolved after contraception controversy, resurrected.
The health clinic is run by Addison Gilbert Hospital and hospital officials have said the final say on any services provided belongs to parent company Northeast Health System.
In a statement yesterday, Addison Gilbert officials indicated they were ready to implement the School Committee's contraceptives policy.
"It has long been the position of Addison Gilbert Hospital that this policy decision regarding the distribution of contraceptives at the High School rested with the School Committee and we are pleased to see that they have made a decision after listening to and considering the input of the community at large," the statement said. "We look forward to working expeditiously with them to understand the specific requirements that must be implemented."
Patrick Anderson can be reached at email@example.com