School nurse Sherry Medrano has more than Band-Aids stored in her cabinets. She has an armory of birth control options: condoms, the pill, the patch, the ring and emergency contraception.
The teen pregnancy rate in the United States is the lowest it’s been in nearly 40 years. However, in some communities, the number of young girls getting pregnant remains stubbornly high.
Planned Parenthood On Campus
Medrano is the chief nurse at Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles’ predominantly Latino Boyle Heights neighborhood. The campus is in what health officials call a pregnancy “hot spot,” where teen pregnancy rates are two to three times higher than in other L.A. neighborhoods.
In fact, the teen pregnancy rate has been so high for so long here, the school has teamed up with Planned Parenthood to operate this on-campus clinic.
“What happened at Roosevelt is that the nurse reached out to us and said there was a tremendously high rate of teen pregnancy, could we help?” says Sue Dunlap, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Los Angeles.
The program at Roosevelt High is the only Planned Parenthood-funded family planning clinic in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
“So what we do at Roosevelt is we make sure that they have the support and resources that they need to cut down their teen pregnancy rate, whether that means access to condoms, access to information, access to our medical director,” Dunlap says.
They also help with student peer advocates. The advocates’ job is to talk to fellow students about safe sex and publicize the family planning services offered by the clinic.
“The whole reason behind being peer advocates is having a better line of communication within the students of the school,” says advocate Christian Juarez.
Christian is a 15-year-old sophomore at Roosevelt. Although enthusiastic about what he’s doing, he says his parents weren’t so thrilled when he broke the news to them about his new school activity.
“I come from a very strong Catholic family, and when I told them I was doing this, they were … a little iffy about it,” he says. “I told them this is normal. I am going to do this because I feel this information should be passed around my school.”
‘Very Concerned’ Opponents
Of course, at a time when even adult contraception has become a national political issue, not everyone is happy with the idea of Planned Parenthood’s presence on a public school campus. That includes Valerie Huber, the executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, which promotes abstinence-only instruction in schools.
“We are very concerned when the sex education that teens are receiving in a school is doing little more than normalizing teen sexual behavior rather than encouraging them to avoid all risk,” she says.
Huber says a program like Roosevelt High School’s, with its easy access to birth control, only encourages teen sex.
“A program like this is setting an expectation that teens are going to have sex,” she says, “and rather than giving them the information, skills to encourage them to wait, it is normalizing that behavior.”
Medrano says they do talk about abstinence with the teens.
“But I would say that 90 percent of the time, abstinence just isn’t working for them,” she says. “Abstinence doesn’t happen, especially when they’re in a relationship.”
Medrano says the year before the partnership with Planned Parenthood started in 2008, there were 32 pregnancies on campus. There were only three the following year.
Spring dances and other social events helped Medrano detect what she calls a “seasonal pattern” to pregnancy at Roosevelt High.
“What I call my peak season is March 1 through June 1. … I attribute it to several things — Valentine’s Day, prom, different events that happen,” she says. “I know everybody laughs when I say that, but you know, that’s the only thing [to which] I can attribute the peak in teen pregnancies during that time period.”
Although still well below what it was, the number of teen girls getting pregnant on campus has inched up in the years since this program was started.
In preparation for summer vacation, Medrano gives students extra birth control and starts referring them to other clinics in the area.