The Los Angeles Board of Education can take a bold step Monday to reduce an epidemic of teen-age pregnancies, cut the soaring dropout rate, curtail absenteeism and improve the health of many students.
The opportunity is a vote permitting the establishment on high school campuses of clinics that provide general medical services including birth control information and methods. Such clinics have achieved dramatic results in other cities.
The concept of clinics at school raises questions. Does providing information about sex condone it? Only in the eyes of zealots who equate information with permission. Should schools take on yet another responsibility that has been abandoned by many parents? If not the schools, who? Parents would have to give permission for their children to use the clinic.
Teen-age pregnancy, although nothing new, is at explosive levels. Last year 17,064 teen-agers gave birth in Los Angeles county--360 of them younger than age 15. That represents thousands of ruined lives for both mothers and babies.
The county's birthrate, for women 15 to 19, was 51.5 babies per 1000 for 1984, according to the Department of Health Services. In St. Paul, where the school-based clinics originated, the birthrate declined from 59 babies to 26 babies per 1,000 students at schools with clinics. The dropout rate also declined with the birthrate.
Members Roberta Weintraub and Jackie Goldberg want the school board to seek private support for a model clinic. Using private dollars would avoid using taxes for a program that not all taxpayers would support; no new strain would then be put on the budget.
If the board approves the motion, as it should, the board must then raise funds, address liability questions and decide where the first clinic would be. The location could become controversial because of racial sensitivities. Statistically, poor black teen-agers are most likely to have babies, but thousands of youngsters from all economic and racial backgrounds also are having children. Los Angeles could avoid that controversy by funding several clinics and placing them only in areas where support is strong.
School-based clinics are only one way to encourage teen-agers to delay sex and avoid pregnancy. At the Watts Health Foundation, for example, parents learn how to talk to their children about sex. Teen-agers, including expectant mothers and a few fathers, attend excellent sessions that demand critical thinking and honesty about values, attitudes, risk-taking, contraception and health.
For most teen-agers, motherhood means the end of education and the beginning of a live of poverty. Few teen-age mothers marry; most never become independent or productive. The fathers, even when willing, are rarely capable of providing financial or emotional support. Most of their babies are born losers with little chance of a stable family life.
There are school-based clinics at 30 high schools in 14 cities. We need them in Los Angeles, and elsewhere in Southern California.