In October, King Middle School in Portland, Maine, began distributing contraceptives to students, including birth control pills and patches. This is news because less than 1 percent of middle schools nationwide even make condoms available to students. King Middle School has been doing that since 2000 but is now the only middle school in Maine offering a broader range of contraceptives.
The Portland Board of Education voted 7-2 to pass the measure authorizing this action. Lori Gramlich, a board member who voted in favor of the new policy, told NPR it wasn't an easy decision and that he "particularly struggled with the part of the program that allows conversations students have with health center staff to remain private." Of course, school officials are quick to point out that students need parental consent to use the health center in the first place. Once that permission is granted, however, students-even those as young as 11 years old-can get counseling regarding their sexual activity and make medical decisions about their reproductive health without parental consent, consultation or even notification. Many, including Maine governor John Baldacci, have expressed reservations about the program, with some even wondering if the practice is legal, since sex with a minor under 14 who is not your spouse is considered "gross sexual assault" in Maine.
Given the seriousness of this issue-That's right, we're talking about children having sex- it's logical to ask how the school board came to the conclusion that such a radical policy as needed. The board's rationale can be summed up in a single, stupefying statement: They're gonna have sex anyway, so we better protect them.
School principal Michael McCarthy told CBS News, "I think it makes people nervous to think middle school students are having sex. Frankly, it makes me nervous. But there's a small population out there that needs protection." Gramlich told NPR that "the board needs to do what's necessary to stop the teen pregnancies," and the NPR correspondent reported that "the program was initiated in response to a spate of pregnancies in the city's middle schools."
But there was hardly a "spate of pregnancies." The truth is that of King's 500 students, only five reported being sexually active last year, and just one became pregnant. Across all three middle schools in Portland, there were seven pregnancies in the last five years.
The logic that led to Portland's decision to provide birth control pills to middle school kids might also inspire them to host "drink responsibly wine tastings" as part of a new health curriculum initiative. After all, they're gonna drink anyway, so we may as well help them to do it responsibly.
By the numbers, teen drinking is a much more pervasive problem than teen pregnancy. The Contra Costa Times recently reported that one in five California seventh-graders admitted to consuming an entire alcoholic drink and that 9 percent drank until they became very drunk or threw up. By ninth grade, 25 percent said they'd been "very drunk" at least once, rising to 41 percent by grade 11.
Nationally, more than 30 percent of all high school students reported drinking five or more drinks in a single sitting at least once during the 30 days preceding the survey. Children who begin drinking before age 15 are four times as likely to develop alcoholism as those who don't drink until 21. Sadly, alcohol is a leading cause of death among young people and a major contributor to date rape, academic problems and delinquent behavior.
Given these numbers and the Portland board's logic, does it really sound so preposterous to propose "drink responsibly wine tastings" as a board-endorsed middle school program to reduce teen drinking? You might say yes, arguing that such an initiative could confuse students about whether or not they should drink. Portland's contraceptive program is no different.
As one student told The New York Times, "I think it's stupid because what people are saying is that it's O.K. to be sexually active." She's right. Twisted logic inspires screwy decisions and sends mixed messages.
Daniel E. Kinnaman is publisher of District Administration.