State

Modesto schools retain medical absence rules

Reversing their earlier position, Modesto City Schools trustees Monday night decided not to adopt a policy change that would have granted junior high and high school students excused absences to leave school for confidential medical services without parent knowledge.

Trustees voted 4-3 in June to approve the first reading of the new policy. Current policy allows the release of students for medical services if parents sign a consent form. Leaving campus without that form results in an unexcused absence, which can lead to a school notifying parents of the absence.

Monday night, staff recommended keeping that policy, which has been "an effective and unchallenged practice for over 20 years," said Pat Portwood, associate superintendent, in a report to the board.

The move ends a two-month battle between supporters and opponents of a policy change.

About 60 people attended Monday's meeting, with about a dozen speaking to the board.

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

Trustee Gary Lopez said the state has decided that minors can get confidential medical services without parental consent. The issue for Modesto's trustees boiled down to whether students should get excused or nonexcused absences if they leave school for those appointments, he said.

When it's unexcused, parents may be notified of the absence and students can't make up missed schoolwork.

Several people spoke during public comment urging trustees to oppose or support the policy change.

Shirley and Louis Woodward spoke of the different experiences their two sons faced growing up, one straight and one gay. Shirley Woodward said her gay son wouldn't go to the bathroom in high school because he was afraid he'd be attacked for being homosexual.

"Everyone here tonight cares for their children or else they wouldn't be here tonight. We just have a difference of opinion," Louis Woodward said. "We need to fight for the minority, not just protect parents. We need to support these children and their rights to privacy."

Brenna McNamara does not want her children released from school without her knowledge.

"I trust Modesto City Schools to take care of my children. This is not in their best interests to go over the parents' heads," said the mother of three.

Activist Fred Herman said he feared the board's reversal was based on concern over some trustees' re-election bids in November. In the conflict between student safety and political gain, "politics seems to have won," he said.

Also at Monday's meeting:

Trustees heard a report on the state budget and its effect on the district. Officials are looking at a decrease in state funding of $8 million for the 2009-10 school year, but school bus funding wasn't cut as deeply as projected. The district could get $600,000 more than expected for transportation.

Trustees heard an update on year-round school enrollment estimates. As of Friday, enrollment at the nine schools was 22 students less than projected. Enrollment also was 214 students lower compared with the fourth week of last school year. Families are still enrolling students, so the staff hopes schools will beat projections.

Trustees approved protocol for trustees' visits to schools. Trustee Steve Collins asked four months ago if trustees could develop a list of ways to visit campuses, instead of showing up unannounced. According to the policy, visits will be scheduled for Thursdays and Fridays, if possible, and the superintendent, an associate superintendent and other trustees will be notified. Don Corgiat with the district's classified employees union suggested amending the draft to let trustees show up unannounced if they are on campus to investigate a complaint, to prevent school officials from covering up any problems. Superintendent Arturo Flores said investigations into employee conduct fall under staff purview, not trustees'.

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

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