School Board OKs Birth Control for Middle Schoolers

School board members in Portland, Maine, approved a city plan last night to make prescription birth control available to students at one if its middle schools.

Portland School Committee member Lori Gramlich who voted in favor of the measure, says it was a hard decision to support the program. She says she particularly struggled with the part of the program that allows the conversations students have with health center staff to remain private.

However, the students — who range in age from 11 to 13 years old — do need their parents' permission to visit the health center.

The program was initiated in response to a spate of pregnancies in the city's middle schools.

Before the vote, Gramlich says she had a frank discussion with her daughter, a 14-year-old freshman at a Portland high school. The teenager said she knew about a number of eighth graders who have had sex, Gramlich says.

So while Gramlich believes parents need to talk to their children about sex and that abstinence is the only form of birth control that is 100 percent effective, she says the board needs to do what's necessary to stop the teen pregnancies.

Gramlich talks to Madeleine Brand about the program.

Maine Middle School to Issue Birth Control Pills

School officials in Portland, Maine, voted to make birth control pills available to students at one of the city's middle schools.

The contraceptives would be available to girls in the seventh and eighth grades, with their parents' permission.

The move, sanctioned late Wednesday in a 7-2 vote by the Portland School Committee, follows a spate of pregnancies among middle school girls.

King Middle School will be Maine's first school to have a full range of contraception available, including birth control pills and patches. Condoms have been available at King's health center since 2000.

A school health center will make birth control pills available to girls as young as 11. Prescriptions will be given after a student undergoes a physical exam by a physician or nurse practitioner, according to Lisa Belanger, who oversees Portland's student health centers.

Parents must consent to their children using the school's health center, as most middle school students are ages 11 to 13.

Nevertheless, treatment is confidential under state law. That means students can decide whether to inform their parents about the services they receive.

"It's very rare that middle schools do this," said Divya Mohan, a spokeswoman for the National Assembly on School-Based Health Care.

There were no figures on just how many middle schools nationwide provide birth control to students in grades six through eight.

In Portland, health officials offered the plan based on reports of 17 pregnancies at its three middle schools in the last four years. That excludes miscarriages and abortions that weren't reported to the school nurse.

Five of the 134 students who visited King's health center during the 2006-07 school year admit to having had sex, according to Amanda Rowe, lead nurse in the city's school health centers.

Portland School Committee member Sarah Thompson, also the mother of a King eighth-grader, supported the policy, even though it made her "uncomfortable."

"I know I've done my job as a parent," Thompson said. "[But there] may be a time when she doesn't feel comfortable coming to me ... [and] not all these kids have a strong parental advocate at home."

John Coyne, the committee's chairman, voted against the change. He said the roles of social agencies and public schools have blurred over the years. "At some point there needs to be a clearing of the gray lines," he said.

The other "no" vote came from Ben Meiklejohn who said a parental consent form, which allows students to receive treatment at the school health center, does not clearly define the services being offered.

Other opponents cited religious and health objections.

"We are dealing with children," said Diane Miller, a former school nurse. "I am just horrified at the suggestion."

Whether prescriptions for birth control would be offered this school year or next wasn't immediately clear.

But supporters said the kids already having sex need better access to birth control.

"This isn't encouraging kids to have sex. This is about the kids who are engaging in sexual activity," said Richard Veilleux, executive director of the Maine Assembly on School-Based Health Care.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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