Contraceptives concept

Denver panel suggests offering birth control at high school clinics serving impoverished students

December 06, 2007|By DeeDee Correll | DeeDee Correll,LOS ANGELES TIMES

DENVER -- At least once a day, a teenage girl walks into North High School's health clinic, wanting to find out if she's pregnant.

Frequently, it turns out that she is.

With the city's teen birth rate more than double the statewide rate of 24.3 births per 1,000 girls between the ages of 15 and 17, Denver school officials are considering a proposal to dispense contraceptives in six school-based health clinics that serve the district's most impoverished students.

The recommendation by a task force studying the future of the clinics comes shortly after a highly publicized Portland, Maine, case in which the local school board allowed a clinic to dispense birth control to middle school students.

The Denver proposal would apply only to high school students, but it has raised many of the same concerns: Opponents say the easy availability would encourage kids to have sex.

Proponents counter that teens who have chosen to have sex should have as much access to birth control as possible.

"While it's not a panacea to unplanned pregnancies, access is extremely critical," said Lori Casillas, executive director of the Colorado Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy, Parenting and Prevention.

The majority of the country's school-based health clinics do not dispense contraceptives, said Divya Mohan, spokeswoman for the National Assembly on School-Based Health Care. In some cases, the school districts prohibit it.

That's the case in Denver public schools, where students can visit one of six high school-based clinics for pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease testing. But if they want condoms or birth-control pills, officials refer them to a community health center off campus, said Dr. Steve Federico, who oversees the school clinics for Denver Health, which also runs a hospital and other community health centers in the city.

The problem for a lot of students is getting there, said Janine Solano, a physician assistant at North High School in northwest Denver.

"They'll say, `I couldn't find a ride.' `I couldn't find a friend to take me.' `My parents are really strict, and I couldn't get away,'" she said.

A 43-member task force charged with defining the future of the clinics noted those factors when it recommended that the clinics begin offering contraceptives directly.

Solano said she won't stop counseling students that abstinence is the only foolproof birth-control method. But, she said, "For children who choose not to do that, we need to take care of those kids."

Critics liken the idea of contraceptives in the schools to abandoning standards for kids.

"If you think they're going to do it anyway, they're going to do it anyway," said Joneen Mackenzie, executive director of WAIT Training, an abstinence education program.

There is no evidence that offering contraceptives makes kids any more likely to have sex, said Katy Suellentrop of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancies.

She said research does suggest that dispensing birth control can increase the number of sexually active kids who use contraceptives, and in some cases, has decreased the teen pregnancy rate.

School and Denver health officials say parents haven't reacted strongly to the recommendation, which the school board has not formally considered. But some parents might distinguish between handing out condoms and writing a prescription for the pill, said Elaine Gantz Berman, a member of the state Board of Education who chaired the task force.

In an informal e-mail survey of 180 people, Denver City Councilman Doug Linkhart said more than 70 percent of the respondents said they were fine with contraceptives in the schools - as long as parents gave consent.

"I'm not against it, but I think the parent should have knowledge of it," said Faye Alexander, who has two teen-age daughters and heads a community committee at Denver's Montbello High School.

That raises the question of whether requiring parental consent would inhibit students from asking for contraceptives. It's a requirement that doesn't exist off school grounds: Minors can obtain contraceptives without parental notification in Colorado.

School officials await the task force recommendation on that issue, said Alex Sanchez, a spokesman for Denver public schools.

DeeDee Correll writes for the Los Angeles Times.

The Denver proposal

School officials in Denver are considering a proposal to dispense contraceptives in six school-based health clinics that serve the district's most impoverished students.

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