AUGUSTA — Cony’s student health center will provide reproductive health services, such as pregnancy tests and birth control prescriptions, next year.
The Augusta School Board voted 7-1 Wednesday to add the services, which will be available to junior high and high school students whose parents give consent.
At large school board member Larry Ringrose cast the opposing vote. He said Cony already provides evidence-based sex education in health classes and that school officials should focus on academics.
“Our mission is not to provide everything to everybody,” he said. “There’s already an organization in the community providing these services.”
He was referring to Maine Family Planning, which will collaborate with Cony to expand the student health center’s offerings. The organization already offers similar services to adolescents 14 and older at their Gabriel Drive office.
Board Chairwoman Susan Campbell said she agrees that education needs to be the priority of school leaders, but it’s difficult to earn a high school diploma while raising a baby.
Cony Principal Kim Silsby said the proposal emerged from discussions among the student services leadership team about how the health center can help students with social and emotional problems that get in the way of their academic success.
The team performed a survey in December that received responses from 316 students, teachers and parents. They then conducted focus groups with 30 parents and community members, 10 faculty members, 17 high school students and 18 junior high students.
Large majorities of all groups supported offering reproductive health services at Cony, but the majorities shrank when it came to specific services. Condom availability had the support of 76 percent, birth control availability 68 percent and testing for pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections 54 percent.
Silsby said the health center will address areas of concern brought up by focus group participants, such as holding an informational meeting for parents before school starts next year, giving attention to the emotional readiness of students and ensuring that financial barriers don’t block students from accessing the services they need.
If costs are not paid by a student’s private health insurance or MaineCare, they will be covered by grants Maine Family Planning receives.
Ward 3 school board member Nicole Desjardins was disappointed that condoms will not be available to students without parental consent, and at-large member Kim Martin agreed.
“I understand parents want to know what’s going on with their kiddos,” Martin said. “But sometimes the kids that need access to those things have the parents that are going to say no. That concerns me.”
Silsby said this is a starting point.
“And then you could decide to go a different way with accessibility,” she said. “At this time, this is where we have support.”
Christine Letcher, a pregnancy prevention coordinator for Maine Family Planning, said offering reproductive health students does not mean putting a bowl of condoms on Cony’s front desk. Students must first talk with a health care professional about topics like talking with a partner and advocating for their own health. Some students may find that they’re not ready to have sex, and they can become more confident in saying “no,” Letcher said.
“In fact, when you have education in combination with these services, actually your rates of sexual initiation will go down,” Letcher said. “That’s a trend we’re seeing, more and more kids are waiting to have sex.”
Maine’s rate of teenage pregnancy was 34.5 out of 1,000 females ages 15 to 19 in the five-year period between 2006 and 2010. Augusta’s rate is 67.9 out of 1,000, one of the highest in the state. Skowhegan’s rate is similar, and only Rockland has a higher rate, Letcher said.
There is precedent in the Augusta area for offering reproductive health services at a school. Cony staff have been consulting with the Maranacook Student Health Center, which has offered condoms, pregnancy testing and sexually transmitted infection testing since it opened 21 years ago. Ten years ago, health center practitioners began writing prescriptions for birth control.
Maranacook health center coordinator Cindy Flye said they did extensive planning and conducted focus groups both before opening and before offering birth control prescriptions, and she advised Cony staff to likewise engage with a wide variety of people inside and outside the school before expanding services.
“If they feel heard and you’re really transparent, it usually goes pretty well,” Flye said. “Cony has taken that advice.”
Any Maranacook middle school or high school student can see the school nurse, who can distribute condoms and administer pregnancy tests. Additional reproductive health services are available to all students whose parents enroll them to receive medical services at the health center.
Flye said more than half of families with students in middle and high school enroll their children, and about 40 percent of those students actually use the health center.
Flye said there were mixed reactions when the health center proposed offering reproductive health services, but some parents who were concerned were assuaged when they learned that their children could already have access to such services from a health care provider off campus.
“When you take your adolescent for a physical and the provider asks you to step out, well that’s when the provider’s having that conversation with your child about reproductive health, drugs, etc.,” Flye said. “And it’s confidential. So it’s the same thing; they can get that confidential service here, too.”
Susan McMillan — 621-5645