Gloucester High Says Yes to Contraceptives

School board approved contraceptives at the high school with parents' consent.

October 9, 2008, 11:15 AM

Oct. 9, 2008 — -- It took a lot of passionate debating, some of it in the national spotlight, but Gloucester High School will start distributing condoms to students who get their parents' permission.

It's a move some students and health officials have said was a long time coming, especially after more than a dozen teenage girls there became pregnant during the last school year in what the Massachusetts school's former principal said was an organized pact between the students to get pregnant and have babies.

"This is what we wanted,'' said Dr. Brian Orr, the former director of the Gloucester High School medical clinic. "This is what we were working towards: to have the School Committee make a decision on what was right for Gloucester. They used the right process to do it. They heard from the community. They heard from the medical professionals."

Orr, who quit his post in disgust along with school nurse Kim Daly after the hospital that oversaw the health center refused to allow them to distribute contraceptives, was grateful that teens will now have access to condoms.

"Teenagers will now have access to contraceptives. Parents can opt out if they want to,'' Orr told today. "It's a win-win for everyone."

He now runs a pediatric practice in Gloucester.

Orr and Daly became concerned earlier this year after several young girls came to the clinic repeatedly for pregnancy tests. In fact, there were roughly 150 pregnancy tests administered between October 2007 and May 2008, officials said -- a high number for a school of roughly 1,200 students.

Gloucester School Committee chairman Greg Verga said the decision to provide condoms was a unanimous one. As part of the new policy, parents can sign a form that would require the school to contact them if their child sought out the care of a doctor, and with parental consent the doctor can also prescribe birth control pills to the students.

"We're satisfied this was the right decision,'' Verga said.

The school committee held a series of hearings with the community last week to garner input.

Gloucester Birth Control Vote Too Late for Some

"I think it's the most wonderful idea," Gloucester parent Wendy Brown said. "Maybe this will help some of the other kids."

The vote came too late for Brown's 17-year-old daughter Kyla, who gave birth 20 days ago to a baby boy. Kyla Brown, who will be going back to school at the end of the month as a senior and plans to attend college, did not want to comment, but her mother said that she was absolutely not involved in any kind of pact and that the teen's pregnancy was not planned at all.

The pregnancy was devastating news for the family.

"I think I cried more than she did," Brown said.

But now she's a doting grandmother to Cameron, whom she calls "a peach."

"I love my grandson," she said. "But if there were contraceptives available in the school … maybe a lot of these kids wouldn't have gotten pregnant."

Brown said she has some concern about the parental consent clause, saying that some kids may not feel like they can talk to their parents about sex or ask them for permission to use birth control.

Orr pointed to a recent Gloucester school survey conducted by students that indicated 86 percent of students support the distribution of contraceptives and 49 percent felt uncomfortable talking to their parents about sex. Orr said that the study was on par with national statistics.

"Nationally, half the kids said they cannot talk to their parents about sexual behavior,'' Orr said.

In fact, it seemed no one in Gloucester, a picturesque one-time fishing village, was opposed to condom distribution. Some parents expressed concerns about the side effects of birth control pills at the community meetings, but said that condoms would prevent sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies.

Gloucester was thrust into the international spotlight in June after former Gloucester High principal Joseph Sullivan told Time magazine that it appeared some of the girls had entered into a pregnancy pact and wanted to raise their children together.

That comment infuriated Mayor Carolyn Kirk, who then held a news conference in which she told reporters that Sullivan's memory "was foggy" and insinuated that the principal had lied. Her remarks angered so many Gloucester High School parents who respected Sullivan, a longtime educator, that there was a petition circulated throughout the city to recall her as mayor.

A short time later, Sullivan quit Gloucester High School. He now works for a private school in Wakefield, Mass. The petition did not lead to Kirk's recall or her resignation.

Shortly after the story broke, a controversial float making fun of Gloucester High School teenagers was videotaped at a "Horribles Parade" in neighboring Beverly Farms, an exclusive waterfront enclave. The float was vilified, and one Gloucester town official declared it offensive and tantamount to causing a class war.