PORTLAND, Maine – Pupils at a city middle school will be able to get birth control pills and patches at their student health center after the local school board approved the proposal Wednesday evening.
The plan, offered by city health officials, makes King Middle School the first middle school in Maine to make a full range of contraception available to students in grades 6 through 8, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.
There are no national figures on how many middle schools, where most students range in age from 11 to 13, provide such services.
"It's very rare that middle schools do this," said Divya Mohan, a spokeswoman for the National Assembly on School-Based Health Care.
The Portland School Committee voted 5-2 for the measure.
Chairman John Coynie voted against it, saying he felt providing the birth control was a parental responsibility. The other no vote came from Ben Meiklejohn, who said the consent form does not clearly define the services being offered.
Opponents cited religious and health objections.
Diane Miller, who said she has worked as a school nurse in another district for eight years, called the proposal "tragic" and asked "What would God have us do?"
Miller said the plan gives children an adult responsibility they are not ready for, and puts them at risk from sexually transmitted disease and emotional problems.
"I just don't know how we can even look at this and consider it," she said.
Peter Doyle, a former middle school teacher, said the proposal violates the rights of parents, potentially ignoring their special knowledge of their children's health, and puts young girls at risk of cancer from too early use of hormone-based contraceptives.
"You all are going to be responsible for the devastating effects on young women when this goes through," he said.
Those who favored the plan said it isn't about encouraging premature sex, but protecting kids who don't have strong support from their parents.
"Unfortunately, not every child is getting the kind of parental involvement that is going to help keep them safe," said Richard Verrier.
"If my daughter were not able to talk with me about something, if she couldn't reach me for whatever reason, to keep her safe and healthy, I would want to make sure she had access to those resources from trusted adults," Verrier said.
Condoms have been available since 2002 to King students who have parental permission to be treated at its student health center.
About one-fourth of student health centers that serve at least one grade of adolescents 11 and older dispense some form of contraception, said Mohan, whose Washington-based organization represents more than 1,700 school-based centers nationwide.
At King Middle School, birth control prescriptions will be given after a student undergoes a physical exam by a physician or nurse practitioner, said Lisa Belanger, who oversees Portland's student health centers.
Students treated at the centers must first get written parental permission, but under state law such treatment is confidential, and students decide for themselves whether to tell their parents about the services they receive.
Five of the 134 students who visited King's health center during the 2006-07 school year reported having sexual intercourse, said Amanda Rowe, lead nurse in Portland's school health centers.
A high school in Topeka, Kan., on Wednesday stopped providing free condoms to students after district officials learned of the month-old program. The district has a policy against providing contraceptives.