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THE NATION

6 Denver high schools may offer birth control

November 24, 2007|DeeDee Correll | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — At least once a day, a teenage girl walks into North High School's health clinic, wanting to find out whether she's pregnant.

Frequently, it turns out she is.

The city's teen birth rate is more than double the statewide rate of 24.3 births per 1,000 girls age 15 to 17, and Denver school officials are considering a proposal to dispense contraceptives in its six high-school-based health clinics, which serve the district's most impoverished students.

The recommendation by a task force studying the future of the clinics comes shortly after a highly publicized case in Portland, Maine, where a local school board allowed a clinic to dispense birth control to middle-school students.

The Denver proposal would affect only high school students, but it has raised similar concerns: Opponents say the easy availability would encourage youngsters to have sex.

Proponents counter that sexually active teens should have as much access to birth control as possible.

"While it's not a panacea to unplanned pregnancies, access is extremely critical," said Lori Casillas, executive director of the Colorado Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy, Parenting and Prevention.

Most of the country's school-based health clinics do not dispense contraceptives, said Divya Mohan, spokeswoman for the National Assembly on School-Based Health Care. Some school districts prohibit it.

That's the case for Denver Public Schools, whose students can visit school-based clinics for pregnancy and STD testing. But if they want condoms or birth control pills, officials refer them to an off-campus community health center, said Dr. Steve Federico, who oversees the school clinics for Denver Health. (The agency also runs a hospital and other community health centers.)

The problem for a lot of students is getting there, said Janine Solano, a physician assistant at North High School in northwest Denver.

"They'll say, 'I couldn't find a ride. I couldn't find a friend to take me. My parents are really strict and I couldn't get away,' " Solano said.

A 43-member task force charged with defining the future of the clinics cited those factors when it recommended that the clinics begin offering contraceptives.

Solano said she would continue to counsel students that abstinence is the only foolproof birth control method. But, she said, "for children who choose not to do that, we need to take care of those kids."

Critics say offering contraceptives in schools amounts to abandoning standards for teens.

"If you think they're going to do it anyway, they're going to do it anyway," said Joneen Mackenzie, executive director of WAIT Training, an abstinence education program.

There is no evidence that offering contraceptives makes teens more likely to have sex, said Katy Suellentrop of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancies.

Research does suggest that dispensing birth control can increase the number of sexually active youths who use contraceptives, she said, and in some cases has decreased teen pregnancy rates.

Denver school and health officials say parents haven't reacted strongly to the recommendation, which the school board has yet to formally consider. But some parents may distinguish between handing out condoms and writing a prescription for the pill, said Elaine Gantz Berman, a member of the Colorado State Board of Education and chairwoman of the task force.

In an informal e-mail survey of 180 people, Denver City Councilman Doug Linkhart said, more than 70% said they were fine with contraceptives in the schools -- as long as parents gave consent.

"I'm not against it, but I think the parent should have knowledge of it," said parent Faye Alexander, who has two teen daughters and heads a community committee at Denver's Montbello High School.

That raises the question of whether requiring parental consent would inhibit students from asking for contraceptives. It's a requirement that doesn't exist off-campus: Minors can obtain contraceptives without parental notification in Colorado.

School officials await the task force's recommendation on that issue, Denver schools spokesman Alex Sanchez said.

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