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Dead On Arrival

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Natchitoches and the smaller community of Many are surrounded by forests and sustained by timber companies that harvest them. Toledo Bend Reservoir, which snakes 76 miles between Many and the Texas border to the west, is a popular fishing spot that teems with tourists in the summertime.

Many residents of Natchitoches who don't work in the timber industry are employed by the local paper mill or the chicken processing plant on the outskirts of town. Some local young people commute to the offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Still, other residents have come to the quaint little town to retire. Natchitoches is where the movie Steel Magnolias was filmed, and the place exudes a peaceful, Southern charm.

But like many communities across the country, the area's young people have more than their share of problems, including substance abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, and tuberculosis, to name but a few.

To address some of these problems, Willie Valerie, director of the Natchitoches Outpatient Medical Center, proposed in the fall of 1992 setting up a school-based health center at the town's junior high school. The school's principal called the proposal "very exciting.'' And last winter, the local school board adopted a resolution supporting the establishment of the clinic, stating that there is a "definite need for this type of health service and counseling for this high 'at-risk' population.'' In March, Mike Whitford, superintendent of the Natchitoches parish schools, wrote a letter of support to accompany the application for state funding.

Some local residents, however, were less than enthusiastic about the clinic idea. Danny Wells, a local forester, was so strongly opposed to the plan that he formed the Coalition of Concerned Citizens to fight it. Over the next month, Wells and his coalition gathered more than 600 signatures on a petition asking the school board to rescind the application.

"It's a parental consent issue,'' says Wells, who has two boys in the Natchitoches public schools. "We want to be in control of our children, not a clinic or another arm of government.''

Opponents denied that students lacked access to health services, since there was already a hospital and medical center in the town, and they questioned who would be liable in a case of malpractice. They held sway at town meetings and informal gatherings, pursuing their case with a missionary's zeal.

The pressure was too strong for school and community leaders to withstand. Last spring, the health center sponsoring the clinic pulled its application, citing a lack of support for the project, and the school board's resolution became mute.

Whitford, who was sorry to see the clinic proposal die, stresses that if the plan were to be resurrected in the future, local leaders would have to do a better job of selling the idea to the community. "The opponents weren't a bunch of rabble-rousers or rednecks,'' he says, "but it all got blown out of proportion that we would be advocating abortions and distributing condoms. It really caught me totally by surprise, all the controversy. Our intentions were honorable.''

As the Natchitoches plan was collapsing last spring, the town of Many was entering a similar battle of its own.

Sabine Parish, which includes Many's three schools, has no established health curriculum other than a basic six-week course provided through a physical education class. More than 60 percent of the students at the junior high level live in poverty, and many have limited access to local health services.

So Margaret Basco, director of the local Head Start program, lobbied to set up a clinic at the junior high school, with the principal's blessing.

But as soon as the school board announced a public hearing on the proposal, the town erupted. "People in the community seemed so frantic,'' Basco recalls.

A few local ministers became so incensed that they began circulating literature claiming the school system had been duped by government agencies that wanted to establish abortion clinics in the schools. "A school-based clinic is a legal term for Planned Parenthood, and their objective is to make birth control available,'' says Reverend Robert Spear of the First Baptist Church in Many, who preached against the clinics in his Sunday sermons.

Judy Slippick, a parent and retired teacher, wrote a column in the local newspaper questioning the wisdom of the proposal and the cost of the enterprise. "When the grant runs out,'' she wrote, "the school district and the local community must assume the cost.''

As in Natchitoches, some opponents also argued that the clinic would simply duplicate health services already available in the community.

James Mitchell, principal of Many Junior High School, defended the clinic idea, pointing out that only one school nurse served all of Many's schools. He implored community residents at a school board meeting to recognize that students need psychological counseling, good nutrition, and a nurse to take care of minor injuries and illnesses at school.

Although the state office of public health had already informed the school that the application had been approved and that it would be receiving money for the clinic, school board members felt they lacked the support necessary to continue. One month after the Natchitoches plan died, the Sabine Parish board rescinded its application.

"I feel reluctant to do this,'' School Board President Warren Founds said following the vote. "By dropping the application, I feel like we, as a board, are remiss in our duties. We are pretty much sticking our heads in the sand and avoiding the problem.''--Jessica Portner

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