By law, public school students in Maryland do not need their parents' permission to receive reproductive health services from school-based clinics. Nor are the schools under any obligation to inform parents when their children access such services or what kind of services they are given. This has been true of school systems throughout Maryland for many years. Parents who complain they were unaware that their children could get contraceptives at school obviously haven't been paying attention. Such public health efforts have helped cut teen birth rates in Baltimore in half in recent years, and if anything they need to be expanded to more schools.
Yet as The Sun's Erica Green and Talia Richman reported this week, some parents, ministers and elected officials are up in arms again over a health department program that dispenses condoms, birth control pills, morning-after pills and hormone implants to students at eight city school-based clinics. The number of children who have received such services remains a minuscule fraction of the school system's total enrollment. Yet the parents and their supporters claim that the school health program undermines their authority.
It's understandable parents would want to know if their kids are having sex. However, there's a time-tested method for parents to determine what's going on that doesn't require dismantling a long-standing and successful public health initiative: It's called talking to your children. Parents who take the time to talk to their children about the changes their bodies experience as they mature — and about what behaviors are appropriate for their age — stand a lot better chance of getting honest answers by the time children become sexually active. It's a conversation that still makes many parents uncomfortable, but if they really want to know what's going on with their kids they've got to be able to ask.
Parents also express concern over whether contraceptives in schools could push kids into having sex at earlier ages or increase sexually transmitted disease rates among teens. There's no evidence that either is occurring. The overwhelming majority of reproductive health services appear to have gone to high school students; fewer than half a dozen middle school children and no students in the elementary grades participated in the program this year. Meanwhile, teen births, abortions and STD rates have all declined. That suggests that comprehensive sex education instruction including ready access to contraceptives is steadily driving teen pregnancy rates down.
We're particularly dismayed by the statements of some local leaders who should know better. For example, the Rev. Gregory B. Perkins of St. Paul Community Baptist Church reiterated his long-held view that poor, black students in Baltimore City were being "targeted" in ways their white suburban counterparts never would be. "Why do you target African-American girls? Why not other communities?" he rhetorically asked. "I think the answer is racism. They bring that garbage to the black community because we're supposed to just take it."
City Councilman Carl Stokes was even more inflammatory in his criticism, comparing the city health department program with the infamous Tuskegee experiments of the 1930s, in which bigoted officials sought to deliberately undermine public health efforts in poor African-American communities by refusing to treat men who came to state clinics seeking treatment for syphilis. That's the exact opposite of what the Baltimore health department program aims to accomplish. For one, it isn't in any way an "experiment" because the contraceptives have clearly been proven to be safe for use and medically effective in preventing unwanted pregnancies, and for another, the benefits are indisputable in terms of their impact on young women's ability to complete their educations and establish careers before having to assume the responsibilities of motherhood.
Even with recent gains, the teen birth rate in the city remains twice as high as that of the rest of the state; the program is clearly needed in Baltimore. But it is not as if the problem of teen pregnancy is non-existent elsewhere. It is just as tragic if unplanned pregnancy interrupts the education of a white teen in the suburbs as an African-American teen in the city. The question, then, is not why Baltimore schools are offering this service but why neighboring suburban school districts are not.