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School boards deal with birth control, reporting laws

The debate rages about the role public schools should have in providing contraception  and reporting underage sexual activity under laws designed to spot and stop abuse.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Jennifer Southard is looking past the uproar that erupted when her local school board voted to provide birth control to middle-school girls. As the mother of two girls in that age group, she thinks the dialogue inspired by the action is a good thing.

“For many of us who are parents, the topic of talking about sexuality with our children, we keep waiting to have it another day,” Southard told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira on Monday from Portland, Maine.

“This has encouraged us to talk with our children now and to talk with other parents on the street, on the soccer field. I think that’s wonderful,” she said.

The Portland School Committee’s decision by a 7-2 vote to provide the information came after the district’s head nurse, Amanda Rowe, was approached by several middle-school girls who told her they were sexually active.

“It’s a very small number of students, but it’s a small number of students who might leave school or have their lives ruined forever with an early pregnancy,” Rowe told NBC News.

A poll conducted by the district found that 13 percent of its middle-school children, who range in age from 11 to 13, admit to being sexually active.

Adding to the debate is the involvement of Maine’s attorney general office. State law makes sex by anyone under the age of 14 a crime and mandates that health care providers report suspected sexual activity to the authorities, who can then determine whether to treat it as a criminal matter.

“Was the law designed to catch 13-year-olds having consensual sex or to protect children from abusive adults?” Vieira asked John Coyne, the chairman of the Portland School Committee.

“I think on both sides of the law that is correct,” he said, speaking from Portland. “It’s black and white — it has to be reported, and the district attorney’s office can handle it from there. It’s not me, it’s the way the statute is written.”

Proponents of providing birth control pills or patches to the girls are concerned that the law, which protects children from abuse by adults, can scare them away from getting help. Opponents say that that the school has no business getting involved in an issue that should be solely the province of parents.

“I don't think the sexual practices of young teens are really the school's business,” one parent told NBC News.

“It's just not something that parents want us to talk about because a lot of parents have problems with even sex ed.,” a middle-school girl said.

Coyne was one of two board members to vote against providing birth control services. But, he said, his concern now is with making the program work. He pointed out that students can not take advantage of the district’s health services without written permission from their parents or guardians. So parents have the ability to control whether their children go to the clinic, even though they wouldn’t necessarily be told what services the children are availing themselves of.

“We want to make sure, as this goes forward, the legal ramifications don’t stop that service from happening,” Coyne said.

Can we talk?
The problem, health care professionals say, is that many parents have difficulty discussing sex with their children.

“I think anyone who has children who are entering the middle schools has fears about what’s happening in the schools,” Southard said. “But I also think as parents, it’s important for us to understand that in the middle-school years, there’s such a range of development and activity, so at the end of the day, it doesn’t surprise me that there are a few students who are sexually active. I’m certainly supportive of them having the health care they need through the schools.”

As a parent, Vieira asked, doesn’t Southard want to know what her kids are doing?

“I think we’re the primary models for behavior and values,” Southard said. “So we need to teach that, and I would hope my children would come to me.”