Parents fight birth control accessibility at Revere High

Group objects to role of high school clinic

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / August 20, 2009

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A group of Revere citizens is trying to put the issue of contraceptives for high school students before voters.

Under a policy approved by the School Committee in February, students enrolled in Massachusetts General Hospital’s school-based clinic at Revere High School can obtain contraceptives at the clinic with the consent of their parents. Included is Plan B, the so-called morning after pill.

The residents opposing the policy are gathering signatures on a petition to place a question on the Nov. 3 city election ballot that would require the School Committee to suspend the policy and form an advisory council to “evaluate the health risks and benefits of both contraception and abstinence.’’

“School is not the place for these types of services to be available,’’ said Kathleen Magno, spokeswoman for the group. She said students already can get contraceptive services at the nearby MGH Broadway health center.

“The message being sent is that we are going to make it easier for you so you don’t have to walk up the street,’’ Magno said. “Allowing access to these services in school sends a strong message that sexual activity is a foregone conclusion and here is the stuff you need.’’

School Superintendent Paul Dakin defended the policy, disagreeing with what he said was the inference by opponents that it amounts to an open distribution of contraceptives.

“It’s really a family choice policy. It’s not a distribution policy,’’ he said.

Dakin noted that the MGH School-Based Health Center at Revere High serves only those students whose families enroll them in it.

“It is separate and distinct from our school nurses,’’ he said, estimating that about a quarter of the school’s 1,600 students in any given year are enrolled in the MGH center. Dakin said students can obtain contraceptives only if their parents provide permission.

“They do these things regularly in doctors’ offices - parents, children, and doctors make decisions about the mental and physical well-being of children. . . . and some of those decisions are decisions about contraception,’’ Dakin said.

“If there’s a satellite Mass General clinic in Revere High School and a parent so chooses after consultation with their doctor to have contraceptives available to their child, why should I as superintendent or anyone for that matter not allow those decisions to be made?’’

Said Mayor Thomas G. Ambrosino, who chairs the School Committee and backs the policy: “It’s really giving the family a choice in the matter. . . . We are certainly not forcing it on any unwilling parent.

“We have a very serious problem with teen pregnancy in our community. We need to do all we can to address it, and this is one way to address the problem,’’ Ambrosino said.

Also supporting the policy is Dr. Eric Weil, an internist at the MGH Revere HealthCare Center and chairman of the city’s Board of Health.

Weil cited a 2007 youth behavior survey at the high school in which more than half the students reported having had sexual intercourse, a quarter of whom said they had not used any form of birth control on at least one of those occasions. Weil also noted that Revere is ranked 12th in the state for teenage pregnancies.

Revere High School principal David DeRuosi Jr. estimates there were 10 teens at the high school who delivered babies during the 2008-09 school year. The figure is based on the number of pregnant girls who participated in a pregnancy and parenting class.

“By not offering the resources necessary in our schools, the message that we are sending to the youth of Revere is that despite the fact that we know there is a high rate of teen sexual activity, we do not hold in high regard offering our youth the opportunity to prevent transmission of sexually transmitted diseases and to prevent unwanted teen pregnancies,’’ Weil said.

Magno said her group also objects to what it says was a lack of public discussion on the policy preceding the vote.

“It was basically quietly done,’’ contended Magno, who said her group numbers about a dozen residents.

Dakin dismissed the charge, saying the policy was discussed at subcommittee and PTO meetings. “We had more debate on this issue than I believe any other issue since I’ve been a member of the School Committee,’’ Ambrosino said of the policy, which was adopted by a 4-3 vote.

State law requires that anyone seeking to repeal a locally adopted measure must file for a referendum within 20 days. If the government body in question does not act in the next 20 days, the referendum goes on the ballot.

Having missed that deadline, Magno’s group seeks to file an initiative petition that stops short of a repeal. Under state rules, the group by Sept. 4 must file certified signatures totaling at least 8 percent of the city’s registered voters, which as of Aug. 13 meant at least 1,870 signatures.

“We are really going to have to hustle to get them,’’ Magno conceded of the needed signatures. “But we are going to put a big effort into it because we have an issue we would like to be heard on.’’