At last week’s meeting of the Del Norte County Unified School District Board, a handful of local residents — mostly parents, doctors, or both — urged officials to change a policy that lets teens leave class for confidential medical appointments, without the consent of a guardian.
“Confidential services could be seeing a counselor or a psychiatrist, but quite often it’s going to a public health clinic seeking information about birth control, contraception and sexual health,” Superintendent Don Olson said.
On paper, the district’s attendance code is by the book, in line with state law that has withstood multiple legal challenges over the last 30 years.
Teens in California have a constitutionally protected right to consent to their own care and a right to privacy in their reproductive decisions. Much like doctors, public school officials are required to protect that privacy, even from parents.
Opponents of the controversial attendance policy took issue with all of the above Thursday, while school officials stressed that none of the above falls to local decision-makers.
After an hour-long discussion, the board unanimously upheld the current attendance policy, emphasizing the district’s preference for students and parents to schedule medical appointments outside of school hours.
In practice, Del Norte’s teens are not entrusting school staff with confidential medical information in order to miss class. Over the last five years, only one student is known to have used the policy to leave campus, Olson said.
“Right now, if students are seeking those services during the day, they are just cutting class,” he added.
The attendance policy came under scrutiny earlier this year, after the board approved building a teen health clinic on district-owned property across from Del Norte High School.
“I know it is upsetting to parents, just the fact that your child could technically excuse themselves from class if they are between the ages of 12 and 17, to go seek those services. However, I believe we are bound to follow California Education Code and California law, whether we are in personal agreement with that or not,” Olson said.
He originally supported changing Del Norte’s policy to require parental consent in the event a student wants to leave class, whatever the reason, but reversed his stance after consulting two attorneys.
Concerned residents, the sheriff and four local physicians spoke against the policy at the meeting. An eye doctor, two pediatricians and a retired gynecologist all agreed that practicing sound medicine on children requires parental involvement.
Some speakers also argued that the education code tramples parental rights.
“If I believed a policy violated parents’ rights, I would be willing as a School Board member to exert leadership,”‚Äąsaid School Board member Don McArthur. “As I look at this policy, I don’t see that it impairs the ability of parents to monitor their children in any way. I think concerned parents have the tools that they need to know the whereabouts of their children.”
Any absence, regardless of the excuse, is recorded and reported online through the district’s new parent-student portal, accessible from the district’s homepage: http://www.delnorte.k12.ca.us/. The site allows parents to check grades and attendance daily, so long as teachers keep it updated.
School Board member and parent of a high-schooler Lori Cowan loves it, she said.
His high-school-aged nephew hates it, Olson said.