New London - As the city moves forward with a plan to start offering contraceptives at the on-site health clinic at New London High School, officials at clinics in Windham and Hartford schools said their experience has shown that offering contraceptives is a positive component of student health services.
"This is about preventing sexually transmitted diseases and teaching about healthy relationships and abstinence and postponing sex, and preventing some high-risk behaviors," said Ruth Goldbaum, nurse practitioner at the school-based health clinics in Hartford's three public high schools, which have been providing contraceptives to students for 15 years. "This allows us to bring the kids in and ask them, 'Is this really what you want to be doing?'"
The program at Windham High began eight years ago, said Shawn Grunwald, coordinator for the school-based health center there.
"The key for us was that not only were we seeing high rates of teen pregnancies, we were also seeing high rates of STDs," Grunwald said. "Students knew they could get contraceptives, but they could never get to the places that dispense them, and didn't know how to use them. This provides us an opportunity to provide them with some education."
At its meeting Thursday, members of the New London school board asked questions of Vanessa Reid, the nurse practitioner at the New London High clinic, and two officials from the Child & Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut, which runs the clinic. Most of the discussion concerned whether parents would be informed adequately by a letter prepared by Child & Family that gives parents the chance to refuse contraceptive services for their children by returning the letter with their signature, said Nicholas Fischer, superintendent of schools. The letter is scheduled to be mailed out within the next week.
Three members of the public also raised concerns, Fischer said, with one who didn't want contraceptives to be available to his or her child, and the others urging that abstinence be emphasized in the clinic's interactions with students.
In the end, the board voted 6 to 1 to accept a report about the plan, with member Jason Catala casting the lone negative vote. The board's approval is not needed for the plan to move forward, but accepting the report served as a de facto show of its support.
The clinic is scheduled to begin offering contraceptives March 1.
Catala said he believes that more students will become sexually active once contraceptive services are offered.
"We're setting a really bad example for our children," he said.
He said he favors more emphasis on abstinence and morality education and working with parents to address issues of sexual activity among youth. He said he believes the board should have had more input leading up to the administration's decision to ask Child & Family to add the contraceptive services.
The service will be added at no cost to the school system as part of its existing contract with Child & Family.
Dr. Vijay Sikand, medical director for Child & Family, complimented the administration for the initiative. At Thursday's meeting, he noted that national studies have shown that 30 percent to 35 percent of youth are sexually active by the time they are 14 or 15 years old. And by the time they're 19, the figure rises to 70 percent.
"I commend the school administration for asking us to do this," he said. "It's a step forward for the school system."
He said he believes that helping students prevent STDs and pregnancy with contraceptives and education will have a positive effect on their academic performance.
"You can't separate one from the other," he said.
Not all of the details have been worked out, said Joanne Eaccarinno, associate director of the school-based health centers for Child & Family, but some are known. Initially, when a student comes to the clinic for contraceptives, the nurse will engage them in a discussion about abstinence and safe sex, she said. Condoms could be provided then, along with a prescription for birth control - pills, contraceptive injections or the Ortho Evra patch - which the student would fill at an outside pharmacy. In the case of DepoProvera injections, the student could bring a filled prescription for the injections back to school for the clinic nurse to administer, she said.
In Windham, students who request contraceptives are given a bag that includes male and female condoms and other materials such as information about STD testing, Grunwald said. Students who want additional birth control can receive DepoProvera shots at the clinic, she said. The shots are administered every three months.
The Hartford high school clinics, which are called The Body Shop, have supplies of condoms, birth control pills and DepoProvera shots available to give to students there, Goldbaum said.
School-based health centers around the state are funded by the state Department of Public Health.
"The prescription and distribution of contraceptives (at school-based health centers) is up to the community," said William Gerrish, spokesman for the health department. "It's a community decision based on local need."
School board Chairman Bill Morse said offering contraceptives will provide opportunities for clinic nurses to educate students about abstinence, safe sex and related topics and could help bring down the high rates of STDs and teen pregnancies among New London youth. A 2010 report by Ledge Light Health District showed the school's chlamydia infection rate was roughly twice the state and national average, and gonorrhea rates were also high. According to a 2008 analysis by the University of Connecticut Health Center's Family Planning Program, New London's teen pregnancy rate was about twice the state average, and was the fifth highest in the state.
"If we can bring more students in by expanding the services, we're going to prevent a lot of tragedies by students making poor choices and uninformed choices," Morse said.
Board member Delanna Muse, an epidemiologist with the state health department's Sexually Transmitted Disease Control program, agreed.
"This is all about being proactive, versus reactive," she said, adding that there is no evidence that providing students with contraceptives increases sexual activity.
"They won't be able to just go in and request it. They'll be educated," Muse said. "I am proud to see New London moving into the 21st Century."