A major grant to fight teen pregnancy in Orange County is on hold and undergoing state scrutiny following the exclusion of Planned Parenthood from the project.
State health officials said their review of the $606,000 grant was prompted by a complaint from Planned Parenthood of Orange and San Bernardino counties that it had been cut in favor of a Fullerton organization that urges sexual abstinence and does not teach birth control methods. But they stopped short of saying the grant is in jeopardy.
At stake is a program meant to help hundreds of teenagers in the county's alternative school system, most of them in Garden Grove and Anaheim, who are considered at high risk of becoming pregnant or fathering children before they receive a high school diploma.
"Our staff is very concerned, recognizing that getting this kind of help to kids is very important," said Sharon Nordheim, director of instructional services for the Orange County Department of Education. "And this work may be jeopardized."
The wrangle over Planned Parenthood is emblematic of recent changes on several Orange County school boards, including the countywide board, as a growing number of conservative activists have won election as trustees. Many of these new trustees are closely scrutinizing programs that they contend are liberal and out of touch with the local electorate.
In addition, the controversy reflects the continuing national debate over sex education in public schools.
Last year, the county Department of Education applied for a grant to combat teen pregnancy under a new, $53-million state program. The grant proposal, aiming for a comprehensive approach that included career guidance and crisis intervention, involved several agencies and earmarked only $3,000 of the funds for Planned Parenthood, for leading sex-education seminars.
In a little-noticed vote on Jan. 23, the county Board of Education voted to accept the grant but to exclude Planned Parenthood from the project.
"It's not so much the dollar amount" that concerns Planned Parenthood, said Felicitas Pascual, vice president of community affairs. "It's more the principle."
A trustee who spearheaded the 4-0 vote, Felix Rocha, said he wanted to keep Planned Parenthood out because it performs and teaches about abortions.
The day after the vote, the county education staff signed a tentative agreement to replace Planned Parenthood with Teen Awareness Inc. of Fullerton. Priscilla Hurley, executive director of the 10-year-old organization, said her group does not teach any contraceptive techniques, instead highlighting the choices teens face when they think about having sex for the first time.
"My intent is not to tell they kids what they should think, or how they should behave," Hurley said.
But Department of Education officials said abstinence is the primary message of Teen Awareness. And Planned Parenthood officials say that approach won't work. They say discussion of abstinence needs to be balanced with frank talk about condoms, pills, diaphragms and other issues--including abortion.
"We're very disappointed that the board is playing politics with the lives of our young people in order to advance their own agenda," Pascual said. She complained that groups that teach only abstinence "endanger young people by denying them access to responsible sex education."
In a Feb. 10 letter to the state asking officials to review the grant, local Planned Parenthood executive director Jon Dunn said his group's participation was "critical to the success of the grant."
But Nordheim and other county officials said the program still includes sex education. Nordheim said other agencies already included in the grant would cover parts of Planned Parenthood's curriculum, including birth control and the risks of sexually transmitted infections.
Two state officials interviewed this week stressed that budget changes in similar programs around the state, known as "community challenge grants," are also under review as California this year launches the teen pregnancy initiative championed by Gov. Pete Wilson.
More than 100 programs around the state have been awarded such grants.
"It would be premature to say their grant is in jeopardy," said Catherine Camacho, an official in the family health division of the state Department of Health Services, referring to Orange County. But Camacho and Anna Ramirez, acting chief of the grant program, acknowledged that the county grant was getting extra scrutiny because of the Planned Parenthood complaint.
Of 23 cases statewide in which Planned Parenthood is involved, Ramirez said, Orange County's is the only one in which the group's participation has drawn fire.
At least one county board member who was in the majority in January now regrets the vote. "It's a mess, what has happened," said board President Elizabeth Parker. She said she wants county education staff to explain why it recommended Teen Awareness to take Planned Parenthood's place.