High-school confidential

Nevada County becomes the focal point for the campaign against a medical-privacy law

On March 16, hundreds of Nevada County residents crammed the Nevada Joint Union High School District’s monthly school-board meeting to hear arguments on a state policy that allows high-school students to access confidential medical services without parental permission.

Opponents of the program—led by local mother Jean Gregory (whose child attends Bear River High School), County Supervisor Sue Horne and a conservative Christian group in for the evening from Sacramento—argued that the policy serves as either an excuse for truancy or a facilitator of abortions. Either way, the opponents claimed, it violated parental rights by allowing children to leave school without Mom’s or Dad’s consent.

A fund-raising e-mail sent out by the conservative group Capitol Resource Institute (CRI) to its sympathizers stated that “existing policies in Nevada County permit children (as young as age 12) to check themselves out of school to obtain medical services including abortions, suicide and depression counseling, drug therapy etc. CRI believes this existing policy in Nevada County is an affront to the authority of parents to raise their own children!”

Defenders of the program—ranging from high-school students to medical practitioners to child-advocacy attorney Cheryl McCall—countered that the practice is layered with safeguards, such as requiring that students produce signed documents from their health-care providers to prevent them from playing truant under its guise. More importantly, they argued, the program allows students who don’t feel comfortable talking with their parents about some issues to nevertheless access needed services. “Would most parents prefer that a minor with a sexually transmitted disease have no medical care?” asked McCall, in a follow-up opinion piece in the local newspaper, The Union. “Would any parent insist that his or her child commit suicide or suffer from disabling depression rather than talk to a therapist without his or her knowledge? I think not.”

One girl talked about how a friend of hers had been self-mutilating and how the teenager’s friends had persuaded her to access confidential counseling—she hadn’t been able to talk with her parents about this because, she claimed, her father had sexually abused her when she was younger. “It stunned the audience into silence,” said one observer who asked to remain anonymous.

Regarding it being a program to encourage teenagers to get abortions, McCall pointed out that no facilities in Nevada County currently provide abortions, including the local hospital—a Catholic hospital that doesn’t even provide vasectomies, much less pregnancy terminations—and thus it was extremely unlikely that this was why students would access the confidential program in the county. Talking about abortion, she argued, was “a red herring used to distract us from the real issue” of a religious-right movement seeking to bend a school board to its sway. “There’s a whole other political agenda going on,” said McCall. “They find the school board too liberal.”

The policy CRI has set itself against is contained within the state’s Education Code and allows students to access medical services such as substance-abuse counseling, treatment for STDs, mental-health services and abortions without first seeking parental consent. In 1997, when conservative Attorney General Dan Lungren spoke out against the law, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that his position was unconstitutional, that minors had a right to medical privacy.

And that, it appeared, was the end of that.

Now, however, the Sacramento-based CRI—whose Web site argues that “someone’s version of morality will be legislated. Will it be a biblical version of morality or a humanistic version?”—has stepped into the fray, raising funds to carry on the fight at school-board meetings around the state. And suddenly, Nevada County finds itself on the front lines of the heated national battle over who controls school policies and what power parents should have to determine the services and type of education available to their children. As in so many other small-town communities in recent years, battle lines are being drawn over the subject of “parents’ rights” on questions involving sex, drugs and other “morals” issues.

CRI claims to have convinced several school boards statewide to revisit the confidentiality policy, in keeping with their stated aim of seeing “an overwhelming restoration of religious freedom and morality.” Through aggressive phone banking and other mobilization tools, they hope to bring out enough conservatives to Nevada Joint Union school-board meetings to make this their next trophy.

CRI’s representatives did not return repeated phone calls for comment. Horne, when reached at home, simply said, “I’m very, very reluctant to comment to the News & Review, because I feel your publication is absolutely biased. I have no respect for your publication, so I’m not going to speak to you about it,” and hung up.

Following the raucous March meeting, the school board, urged to preserve the existing policy by district Superintendent Maggie Deetz, chose not to make any changes. Doing differently could have opened up school-board members, as individuals, to lawsuits for knowingly violating state law. That process, says one defender of the status quo, “would tie it up for years. The minute a lawsuit is filed, no other school board will consider it.”

Fearful that CRI’s campaign will only get more potent with time—the local newspaper already has published op-eds by CRI supporters, and the group also has launched a letter-writing campaign against the school policy—a number of area parents have begun counter-mobilizing. Led by Susan Rogers, a media consultant and the mother of a teenage son set to start at the high school this fall, they set up a group called Protect All Children of Nevada County to defend the existing procedures and launched a Web site to put out their side of the argument.

“And ‘all’ is the operative word,” said Rogers, speaking of the group’s title. “Because the policy protects all children, including those who need protecting the most—those who are afraid of their parents.”