State

Schools in middle of policy debate

Modesto City Schools trustees will pick up the discussion Monday of a policy that allows students to leave school for medical appointments without parents' knowledge.

Monday's board meeting will include an overview of the topic, but no formal action will be taken, board President Steve Grenbeaux said.

District staff and trustees are updating a student attendance policy to conform with state law. The issue is whether Education Code Section 46010.1 requires that districts allow junior high and high school students to leave campus during school hours for medical services without parental knowledge or approval.

Modesto City Schools' current policy allows for student absences for confidential medical services in two ways: a written note from parents or a written verification from parents or the doctor's office.

Trustees voted 4-3 in June to approve the first reading of the new policy, which says the district must notify parents each year that the policy allows students to be released from school for confidential medical services without parental or guardian consent.

Since then, some trustees have been inundated with e-mails, letters and phone calls from across the state, and local churches are circulating petitions urging trustees to oppose the policy.

For adoption, the confidential medical services policy would need a second reading and final approval by the board.

Most of the opposition centers on the idea that a child could get an abortion without parental knowledge. Medical services can include pregnancy testing, contraception, abortions, sexually transmitted disease testing and treatment, and counseling and treatment for rape, drug abuse and mental health.

"It hasn't been divisive amongst the board, it's just a vote. You just vote your conscience," Grenbeaux said. "What bothers me is that we've become a pain in the pro-choice, pro-life campaign."

School officials do not track how many students leave school for such medical serv-ices, but based on anecdotal evidence, they said it's rare.

The Education Code states that boards "shall" notify parents that districts "may" release students for the serv- ices without parent consent. Across California, school districts, parents, advocacy groups and lawyers have different interpretations of what that means.

Opponents of the policy say the word "may" is permissive and not a requirement. They argue that the author of the legislation, now-deceased Republican state Assemblyman Eric Seastrand, who represented Salinas, wanted parents to know that districts could have a policy. His intent was not to require a confidential medical services policy, they say.

Proponents contend the policy protects the minority of students who have dysfunctional families or no support network.

In a legal opinion by Modesto City Schools attorney Roman Muñoz, trustees are encouraged to adopt the policy. He cites a 1997 California Supreme Court case that stated a minor's right to certain medical treatments is protected by the state constitution.

The court recognized that minors must get parental permission to get an appendectomy, but said that in matters of sexual conduct, minors are reluctant to inform parents about some services, such as abortion, contraception, rape counseling or sexually transmitted disease testing and treatment. That reduces the chance that minors will seek and receive treatment, the court said, and confidential medical services policies are meant to protect the health of minors.

Muñoz also noted a 2004 California attorney general opinion interpreting the Education Code as a requirement that districts release students for confidential medical services without parental consent.

Legal opinions for both sides caution about lawsuits against districts from parents upset their children were released or injured during a medical visit the parents knew nothing about, or from students who were denied confidential medical services.

"No one has litigated on either side, which tells me that no one is sure enough in their decision," Grenbeaux said.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.

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