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Dispute Erupts Over Chicago School's Distribution of Birth- Control Devices

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The Chicago Board of Education is caught in an imbroglio over whether it did or did not sanction the dispensing of birth-control devices at a new school-based health clinic in the district.

The controversial clinic, which opened last month, is one of a handful of such school-based efforts nationally and one of the very few known to provide birth-control devices.

Several dozen citizens appeared at a board hearing last week to express their opposing views on the clinic; board members said they planned to consider the situation further before making a decision.

The clinic, set up in DuSable High School to provide comprehensive medical services to students, is operated by the Provident Medical Center and funded by the Illinois Department of Public Health and a group of private foundations.

About 18 people, mostly parents and students from the "southside"community where the school is located, spoke in favor of the clinic, saying it will have a positive impact on the high teen-age birth rate in that area, according to George Munoz, school-board president.

More than 300 of the school's 1,000 female students reportedly gave birth last year.

But about 10 representatives of religious and pro-life groups at last week's hearing argued against the clinic, Mr. Munoz said, on the grounds that students should abstain from sex. The protesters said their organizations believe "the presence of the clinic would encourage students not to practice abstinence because they would have a sense of security if they engaged in sexual activity" with birth-control devices.

Mr. Munoz said the board asked the superintendent to evaluate the program and its appropriateness in the school building. Another health clinic is scheduled to open in Chicago's Orr High School early next year.

Mr. Munoz noted that the school-based clinics themselves are not threatened by the dispute. The issue is whether they should be allowed to dispense contraceptive devices on school grounds, he said, and that question has not yet been "fully debated" by the board.

About 75 percent of the students who use the DuSable clinic do not ask for birth-control services, Mr. Munoz said.

According to Judy Carter, a spokesman for The Ounce of Prevention Fund, which serves as a fiscal agent for the clinic, the school board had been aware since last January that the clinic would provide birth-control services.

"It was precisely and specifically stated at public hearings that contraceptives would be dispensed at the clinic," she said. "But parents must give permission to students to use the clinic for anything."

Ms. Carter noted that the permission slip clearly states that one of the clinic's services is: "Family planning, including pregnancy prevention."

According to Sharon Lovick, director of the Support Center for School-Based Clinics, a project of the Center for Population Options, there are 31 school-based clinics operating in 18 different cities and communities throughout the country. The clinics operate either in the school itself or in a building on school grounds.

Besides Chicago, school-based clinics in Dallas, Houston, and Jackson, Miss., dispense contraceptive devices, Ms. Lovick said.

Less than 20 percent of the services provided by school-basedhealth clinics nationwide, Ms. Lovick said, deal with family planning.

"All of this attention has been misguided because people are focusing on the family-planning services of these programs," she said.

"School-based clinics," she added, "view their roles as helping the educational process by helping young people to stay healthy. To paint them as family-planning centers is a real disservice to the work that they do."

Karen Pittman, director of adolescent-pregnancy programs at the Childrens' Defense Fund, agreed.

"School-based clinics are certainly a growing model for getting general primary health care to adolescents, specifically low-income adolescents," she said. "I don't see the actual dispensing of contraception as a crucial element. That's something that needs to be left up to each community. The important thing is that the clinic stays in the school."

In St. Paul, where school-based clinics began in 1973, four out of sixhigh schools have such clinics. The clinics provide general health and family-planning services. They do not dispense contraceptive devices, although they do issue birth-control prescriptions.

According to Wanda Miller, supervisor of the health-care program in St. Paul, 13,005 students visited the clinics in 1983-84. Thirty-four percent were treated for minor and acute illnesses, 15 percent for family-planning services, and 13 percent for nutritional counseling.

Clinic officials, she said, conducted a follow-up study of 150 patients who gave birth between 1974 and 1981. Eighty percent of the teen-agers who gave birth before age 18 completed high school--compared with the national rate of 49.9 percent, Ms. Miller said. Thirteen percent dropped out and 7 percent were still in school or not located.

Of those who stayed in school, she said, the repeat-birth rate for students within a year after giving birth was 1.3 percent, compared with the national repeat-birth rate of 17 percent for teen-agers.

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