Birth control battle in Revere

Vote sought to halt distribution at school

WENDY MAEDA/GLOBE STAFF“I don’t think this type of thing belongs directly in the school,’’ said Kathleen Magno, who is organizing the petition drive. WENDY MAEDA/GLOBE STAFF“I don’t think this type of thing belongs directly in the school,’’ said Kathleen Magno, who is organizing the petition drive. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Steven Rosenberg
Globe Staff / September 6, 2009

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REVERE - Kathleen Magno isn’t resting this Labor Day weekend. Her city decided earlier this year to allow contraception to be dispensed at Revere High School, and now she wants voters to reverse the program on the November ballot.

“I don’t think this type of thing belongs directly in the school,’’ said Magno, who is gathering signatures this weekend in hopes of collecting the 1,875 - or 8 percent of the city’s registered voters - needed by Tuesday to put the referendum on the city’s Nov. 3 ballot.

The referendum would ask voters to temporarily suspend distribution at the school and create an advisory council to study the risks and benefits of contraception and abstinence. If the measure reaches the ballot and passes, the council would make a recommendation on the program to the Revere School Committee, which implemented the contraception distribution program last winter.

Currently, Revere High School students who have parental approval can receive free condoms and prescriptions for birth control pills. Other contraception methods available to students in clude a Depo Provera shot, which protects against pregnancy for up to 14 weeks, and the Plan B, or morning-after, pill.

Revere decided to allow contraception in school after an increase in teen pregnancies and after Gloucester weathered a controversy over teen pregnancy in that city. But the policy infuriates Magno and others such as the Rev. George Szal of Revere’s Immaculate Conception Parish. Szal said he has urged the 2,100 families that attend his church to sign the ballot petition.

“I think it’s a big mistake,’’ said Szal. “The problem is they’re saying go ahead and do what you want, just don’t make trouble for us by getting a disease or getting pregnant. And the fact of the matter is condoms don’t always work; they leak. And kids discover you lose half the pleasure when you’re using an instrument like that.

“Contraceptives are dangerous, especially for girls who are still developing, and the morning-after pill is a euphemism for an abortive action.’’

But city officials, like Mayor Tom Ambrosino and School Superintendent Paul Dakin say the policy shift was necessary in order to protect students from unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

“You’re not going to stop a 16-year-old,’’ said Dakin. “Once they bite of the fruit they’re not going back.’’

Since 18 Gloucester teenage girls became pregnant in 2008 - generating national publicity - health officials and educators in Eastern Massachusetts have taken a closer look at teenage pregnancy statistics.

Last fall, as Gloucester’s School Committee debated the matter and endorsed contraception distribution at its high school health center - with parental consent - Revere school and city officials looked at their own statistics. Revere placed 12th in the state last year in teenage pregnancies.

Dakin also found other statistics he described as “alarming.’’ According to the 2007 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey, Revere High students trended higher than the state average regarding sexual activity. In the survey, 54 percent of the students reported having sexual intercourse, higher than the state average of 44 percent. Also, 9 percent reported becoming pregnant or impregnating a partner, above the 5 percent state average. And 31 percent said they had sex with four or more partners, above the 12 percent state average.

“There was also a significant increase in teen pregnancies,’’ said Dr. Roger Pasinski, director of Massachusetts General Hospital Revere HealthCare Center, who also oversees the health center at Revere High School. In 2009, pregnancies at the school rose to 21, up from 13 in 2008.

Pasinski met several times with Dakin, Ambrosino, and School Committee members, and recommended contraception distribution at the health care center.

Currently, there are 38 school-based health centers in the state, down from 49 in 2006. During 2006, the last year the state compiled full statistics on the centers, 26 percent of all student visits to the centers focused on reproductive health counseling - on subjects such as unprotected sex, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy risks, and prenatal health.

In Revere, the new policy was adopted after four months of discussion and without large public forums like Gloucester held. The School Committee held two subcommittee meetings to discuss the issue and then voted 4 to 2 to allow contraception on Feb. 24, without even mentioning the topic on its agenda.

Magno wants the city to hold public forums on the policy shift.

Michael Ferrante, one of the School Committee members who voted against the policy shift, said there is not citywide consensus on the issue. Ferrante is unsure whether he wants to see it on the ballot, but is against distributing contraception in schools. “I think the parents should do the parenting and not the School Department,’’ he said.

In Gloucester, Mayor Carolyn Kirk said any ballot initiative would undermine the work of the Revere School Committee. “I think it violates the policy-making authority of the School Committee,’’ said Kirk.

Jen Slonaker, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, also opposed any referendum on birth control. “Decisions around access to contraceptives for teens should be left up to families, not voters.’’

Inside the lunchroom at Revere High School, several students said they were unaware that the center provided contraception. Loujin Hamza, who is 17 and a senior, said contraceptives are needed in the school.

“I think most teens do have sex,’’ said Hamza. “I think it will help a lot, because if you’re being offered protection, then you’ll use it.’’

Jay Sasso and Russell Goodwin, who are also 17 and seniors, said they planned to go to the clinic.

“I think if a lot of parents knew their kids were having sex they’d want them to join that clinic,’’ said Sasso.

Steven Rosenberg can be reached at