Thursday, March 5, 2009
The Vista Unified school board will vote today on whether to change a little-known but controversial policy. Currently the school district requires students to get parental permission to leave campus for confidential medical services. KPBS Education Reporter Ana Tintocalis explains.
(Photo: High school campuses are most affected by parental notification laws. Ana Tintocalis/KPBS)
A bunch of teenagers are at an afterschool barbeque in downtown Vista. The girls flirt with the boys. The boys show-off for the girls.
Flirting and dating are normal parts of teenage life. However, poor decisions can lead to unintended pregnancies. The last census report shows Vista had a teen birth rate that was twice as high as the rest of California.
“At least two of my friends have kids,” Jenny, 16, says. When I see girls at my school getting bellies, I just feel sorry for them.”
Jenny is a sophomore in Vista Unified. She didn't give her last name because she was speaking without her parents’ permission.
Jenny has stayed out of trouble, but she's given her friends a lot of help and advice when it comes to their sexual health.
She says many girls would leave campus if they could to get check-ups, condoms, birth control pills or prenatal care. But a Vista policy prevents them from doing that because they would have to tell their parents.
(Photo: Vista Community Clinic offer services regarding sexual health. Ana Tintocais/KPBS)
“They're mostly scared,” Jenny says. “That's why most teenagers usually don't say anything (to their parents). And they usually just wait until the parents find out and notice their belly getting big or some (teens) just runaway from home and come back with a child.”
And Jenny says some parents end-up throwing their own children out of the house.
Despite some of the consequences, Vista's policy has gone unchallenged for years. Many parents believe in it.
Vista is the same school district that backed a decisions to teach creationism in its public schools about a decade ago. Jim Gibson has been on that school board for 10 years.
“We support parents, and we support the parents’ rights to be involved in these crucial times in a child's life,” Gibson says.
Gibson is a staunch supporter of Vista's current policy on parental notification. He says kids under 18 don't have the life experience to make life-changing decisions when it comes to pregnancy.
“Why would we quietly or secretively whisk a child off for medial treatment, something that might be a serious medical treatment, without the parent’s knowledge?,” Gibson says. “Now there are those groups who have political agendas who want to encourage abortion and would like us to change the current policy.”
Groups, Gibson says, like Planned Parenthood.
Vince Hall is vice president of Public Affairs and Communications with the San Diego Chapter.
Hall says Vista's policy must be changed because it currently violates state law, state education code and an Attorney General's opinion -- all of which allow minors to get confidential medical services without a parent's consent.
The State Department of Education confirms Vista's policy is in conflict with state code. But officials say they don't have the time, resources or money to investigate every policy violation.
Hall says these laws are designed to protect teenagers who come from broken homes where a parent abuses drugs or alcohol, is physically abusive or violent or might have even caused the pregnancy.
“When a school district takes it upon itself to call a parent and say, ‘Your daughter is pregnant,’ and not understand any of the circumstances of that teenager’s life, not understand what is going on in the home between the teen and the parent, in some cases, they are putting the teenager at grave risk,” Hall says.
Grave risk because a parent might force a teenage girl to take action against her will or the teen might take matters into her own hands.
“We've seen teenagers put chemicals like bleach in their bodies,” Hall says.“We’ve heard of teenagers crossing the border buy off-the-shelf drugs to in a sense administer their own medical abortion. In one case the (teenage girl’s) boyfriend hit her in the an abdomen with a baseball bat.”
Many school nurses and counselors agree, and the tide seems to be turning in Vista.
The board is considering tweaking its policy so students in grades seven through 12 can get help during school hours. But the ACLU of San Diego says that still undermines state and education law, saying students of any age should be protected.
But Jim Gibson, longtime Vista school trustee, says he's not going to change his mind. He plans to stand-by the district's original policy.
Ana Tintocalis, KPBS News.
Stayed tuned for the second part of KPBS Education Reporter Ana Tintocalis' report next week, where she focuses on school clinics and a parental notification problem in the San Diego Unified School District.