Often-overlooked policy on parental consent suddenly takes center stage
Each August, students attending Nevada Joint Union High School District’s three campuses are given a six-page document that details rules and regulations for attending school.
Until recently, many likely overlooked a two-line statement reprinted from the California Education Code, which says students may obtain confidential medical services without the consent of a parent.
“Nobody reads (the policy), that I know of,” said Nevada Union High School senior Robin Carr, 17, who attended a recent school board meeting that drew dozens of parents and students into a debate over the policy.
Actually, there is no firm policy – the 4,200-student school district simply says that it “may” allow students to leave without parental consent.
Superintendent Maggie Deetz can only recall three times in her 23 years as an administrator and teacher with the high school district when this exact parental-consent issue has arisen. The three cases, Deetz said, involved students who believed they were pregnant or suspected they carried a sexually transmitted disease.
“And in each case, we got the parents involved,” she said. “That’s the first thing we try to do.”
Now some parents are calling for a policy that requires consent, and the ensuing debate has brought widespread scrutiny onto a small statement that has been on the books for two decades.
Parent Jean Gregory and others believe the school district is avoiding changing the policy simply because the state attorney general has said that, based on his reading of the law, schools are required to let students get confidential medical aid without consent.
“What makes me the most mad is … they know this is an important issue, and they don’t want to rock the boat. And this is a boat that needs to be rocked,” Gregory said. “Nobody knows about this policy, and it is a policy that is not OK.”
Gregory, a registered home health nurse, has two children at Bear River High School. She has enlisted the help of Sacramento-based Capitol Resource Group in an attempt to change the district’s parental-consent policy.
Nevada Joint Union Board President Dan Miller, who has had three children in the district, said he hadn’t studied the parental-consent issue until several weeks ago. The school district has interpreted the California Education code and the attorney general’s opinion to mean that the district shall not prohibit a student from seeking such services without written consent.
“We stand firmly behind the attorney general’s opinion and the education code,” Deetz said.
A ‘difficult position’
The parental-consent debate continues to simmer between those who support notification and those who believe students should make their own health-care decisions.
“My feeling is, I don’t believe in confidentiality in children at a high-school age,” said parent Melanie Militano, who has two children at Bear River. “I don’t want my children making life-changing decisions at an age where they don’t have the experience in making those decisions.”
If the policy were to change, at least one former health educator believes it would create fear among students who need sensitive services.
“If you take the rights of students away, you’re going to negate access for a lot of people,” said Alta Sierra resident Marion Becker, who served as a school nurse for eight years in Contra Costa County’s Mount Diablo Unified School District.
Melanie Wellner said some students simply might be fearful of telling their parents they need critical services. “You have to have parents willing to support the child, and I think there are students who might turn to a teacher first for help.”
Wellner worked for 15 years in the Nevada County Counsel’s Office. For four of those years, she represented county social workers in cases brought by Child Protective Services against parents.
“We shouldn’t deprive the ones that don’t have a good relationship with their parents the right to take care of themselves.”
Miller acknowledged that the confidential medical services policy conflicts with a similar district policy that requires students present a written excuse when they leave campus for routine medical appointments.
“It seems to put the school district in a very difficult position,” he said. “All we’ve been able to determine at this point is that we’re in compliance with state law, and we have to follow that.”
The school district does require proof from students who have received confidential services, but the district isn’t required to notify parents, Deetz said.
Pleasant Ridge Union Superintendent Jim Meshwert said his K-8 elementary school district requires parental consent for students to leave campus for confidential services. The policy has never had to be enforced at Pleasant Ridge in the 19 years since a San Luis Obispo County assemblyman penned the education code that allows students to leave campus for such services, Meshwert said.
“We’ve had no incidents that would result in this being an issue with the Pleasant Ridge school district,” he said. “It has not become an issue among our parents or students at all.”
If a situation would require a student to receive confidential services, Meshwert said he would ensure the parent or guardian were involved.
Meshwert, who has been with the Pleasant Ridge district for 29 years, said he wouldn’t hesitate to contact law enforcement if he believed a crime was committed against one of his students seeking confidential services.
Rosie Wright, a junior at Nevada Union High School, said a policy of confidentiality can help students such as a friend of hers who sought treatment for self-destructive behavior.
“In a perfect world, everyone would be able to go to their parents, but that’s not the way it is,” Wright said. “Everyone needs a chance to get the help they need, whether they have a good relationship with their parents or not.”
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