Is Portland School Board Decision Craziness In Reverse?

The decision by the Portland, Maine school board to allow the school’s health center to provide emergency contraception to 11-13 year-old women has shown fine lines between sex education and a school board’s role in addressing real-life, sexually-related situations—even when the school board might have no role.

Portland is a mid-sized city, internationally recognized to have a very high quality of life. I found the Wikipedia page for Portland, Maine and learned that this mid-sized metro area of approximately 64,000 residents is a highly desirable place to live, start a business, or just plain visit. Honors listed on the Wiki included:

o #6 on Relocate America’s Top 10 Places to Live in 2007.

o #12 in the world by Frommer’s in its list of Top Travel Destinations for 2007.

o #20 in Inc. Magazine 2006 Boom Town List of Hottest Cities for Entrepreneurs.

o #7 on the 2005 list of the 100 Best Art Towns in America. (The Countryman Press, April 2005)

o #15 in medium sized Top U.S. Cities for Doing Business. (INC. Magazine, May 2005)

o #1 Top Market in Small Business Vitality. (American City Business Journals, January 2005)

o #14 in Best Performing Cities index (Milken Institute, California, November 2004).

I used to be an urban planner. I’m still a student of the art and science of cities. Cities such as Portland earn their reputation by being professional and thoughtful about their city services. They want to be known as family-oriented places where commerce and the arts can also flourish indefinitely. However, while reading into the various stories on the recent school board decision, I wonder if there has been too much ado about nothing.

I strongly disagree with former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr (R. Georgia), that the school board’s decision is a reflection of misplaced priorities, that sex education should not be taught in an educational setting where the majority need attention and instruction in reading, math and science. I was curious why a former Republican Congressman from Georgia passed judgment over the quality of education in a city in Maine when his own party has long considered education to be under the purview of the states. This was not the right time or place for him to jump in with a sound bite, but that’s besides the point.

Middle school students do not “advance” into learning about sex through their teachers; there are so many models of sexual behavior all around them: their parents, church, siblings, friends, and other popular villains, the fashion and entertainment communities. Even if public schools taught no sex education (my high school did not), middle school students would want to learn about sex, probably more than they want to learn to drive and own their own cars. If they were taught outside the classroom to abstain from sexual relations, they would still want to know about sex.

The Portland school board’s decision shows a greater need to reach to middle school students through comprehensive sex education. Sex education is about teaching the risks as well as the choices and rewards of sexual relations. If anything, 11-13 year-old men and women are ready for the “sex talks” that the parents of my generation reserved for their 14 year old. Maybe their parents should go to school too; that will lessen the likelihood that their children will take unnecessary chances with their bodies. King Middle School’s principal, Michael McCarthy alluded to this point in the letter that he publicly posted on the school’s Web site.

Reading further, the Maine provider, in this case a local government supported public health clinic, is not part of the public school system. The clinic is operated by the city’s division of public health. I could not understand how the school committee could become involved with a service that they might not be legally able to regulate. Then I read that Portland Republicans want to recall the seven board members who voted to allow the health center to supply contraceptives-but for what? Overreacting to a crisis that didn’t exist? There was no issue to vote on. This is a public health issue, not an educational issue.

True, local government could step in and call a vote, but there is no need. Parental consent laws are already on the books in Maine; no one is arguing that 11-13 year olds are not dependent children. In addition, according to Choice, an anthology of essays by 24 women published earlier this year (Karen Bender and Nina da Gramont, MacAdam/Cage, San Francisco), Maine is one of only five U.S. states that require pharmacists to fill valid prescriptions for contraceptives. That means a middle school student can get a birth control prescription filled with a doctor’s note.

The King Middle School is one of the most racially diverse schools in the state of Maine. King Middle School’s student body represents 17 countries and 28 languages. One opinion piece in the online Springfield (Mo) News Leader mentioned that King was the only Portland middle school that had a public health clinic, because it has the largest concentration of students from low-income households. Then the writer asks, why not offer contraceptives to students in the other middle schools?

That is a good question; local government should not provide unequal access to public health care. That might be one reason why the school board members voted as they did. If the King health center did not stock contraceptives, then middle school students might hop on a bus to another health center in town, or in the next town or two over.

It’s easy to infer that only King Middle School students had access to the clinic at their school, but that was never stated by the school to the media. Their resident physician and staff-Principal McCarthy’s letter stated that the health center employed a physician–have had to deal with only five pregnancies in the past year, only one to full-term, and only 17 pregnancies over the past five years.

I was amazed that dissenters said that nurses would prescribe contraception because of the school board’s decision; the resident physician examines and prescribes. Surely, the doctor on site should be able to advise another student from another middle school. It’s not like pregnancies have been rampant acts at King.