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May 31, 2005

The Great Teen Help Card Controversy

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Access to public health information or governmental incursion into the child/parent relationship? This is the question facing the Frederick County Board of Education (BOE) in deciding whether or not to distribute the Teen Help Card.

The card, which is essentially a telephone listing of physical and mental health resources, is also under discussion in other regions around Maryland.

A recent discussion by the BOE for the People's Republic of Montgomery County resulted in an indefinite postponement of the issue. One can assume that the issue will come up again though.

As is usually the case, an issue facing our southern neighbor has a way of migrating north, and the Teen Help Card is no different.

Frederick County public school health staff and the county's health department are advocating distribution of the card to ninth grade students in health classes.

School officials must have sensed an impending storm of reaction from religious and family values advocates. The FCPS proposal included a provision to "opt-out" of the Help Card distribution.

The way it would work is this: a high school student would bring home a note. The parent that doesn't want their kid to receive the card would send back a refusal to the school.

A little more background might be helpful. As much as we'd wish it didn't happen, high school kids do engage in promiscuous behavior without sufficient attention to the possible consequences.

It is appropriate to seek clarification about just how pervasive this problem really is. Is teen sex a dangerous and imminent public safety concern? Does the physical, emotional, and financial damage done by teen pregnancy and disease transmission warrant this type of information distribution?

No one would have argued about making pertinent information available to people who need it, particularly when pressing matters of public health are at stake.

It isn't evident that this is true when it comes to the Teen Help Card. It would prove illuminating if advocates are able to make a case for school-based distribution by offering evidence of a serious public health risk.

A fundamental question that demands an answer is whether this information can be distributed through any other means.

I read the "Card," even downloaded an Adobe PDF file through a dial-up internet connection to the Frederick County Health Department's web page.

It just so happens that this harmless little card includes a prominent reference to the "morning after" pill. The header refers to the free and low cost services; the rest of the card lists a wide range of these options.

No wonder conservatives and religious interests are so alarmed! Listing the "morning after" pill so prominently sends an unmistakable message.

If you are active sexually (in the 9th grade), and fear that your actions may result in your getting pregnant (DUH!), give us a call for your free or low cost solutions.

Some parents find this objectionable. See, for some of us old-fashioned traditionalists, we want to be the ones to have those conversations with our kids.

So, what about those kids not fortunate enough to have a parent that cares enough to have that conversation? We know they're out there, but what effort has the BOE undertaken to find out who they are?

Instead of alienating parents whose passionately held religious beliefs cause them to view the card as harmful, why not just announce in health class that information can be obtained through the county health department?

The BOE allowed a number of parents on both sides of the debate to express their opinion on this issue. In fact, the BOE moved their regular meeting from the downtown headquarters to the larger room at Hayward Road to accommodate the crowd.

Most of the testimony was heartfelt, well prepared, and on point. I suspect that each member of the BOE paid careful attention to all of the testimony; at least it appeared that was the case.

Following the citizen input, the BOE deliberations took an interesting turn. Dr. Michael Schaden, a Republican member of the board, argued that access to more health information was a responsible position for the board to take.

Board member Darryl Boffman, a Democrat, argued that families, not schools, should be the entities that shared this kind of information. Mr. Boffman accepted the idea the county health department had a role to play in conveying health information to the community.

Partisan positions shouldn't really be a part of the dynamic here, since the BOE elections are non-partisan. That said, it was an interesting turn of events to see a Democrat argue family values while a Republican argued for wider distribution of health and sexual education information.

In the end, the BOE could not pass a motion with a majority vote. Board member Katie Groth was absent, so several motions died on a 3-3 vote.

One can't help but wonder what might have happened if Ms. Groth had attended the meeting. As it stands now, we've joined our southern neighbor Montgomery County in postponing discussion on this topic.

Before I embrace the concept of a broad distribution of this information, I' d like to see the justification for doing so. I applaud the board members who felt that question had not been answered.

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