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Board is 0ffended by Christoffel's comments

March 16, 2006|by TARA REILLY

WASHINGTON COUNTY

Washington County School Board member Bernadette Wagner had sharp words Wednesday for Health Officer William Christoffel, who on Tuesday faulted the school system for not doing enough to fight teen pregnancy.

"I think he's a bully, and he's using the school system as a scapegoat," Wagner said.

Wagner said she thought Christoffel was pointing the finger, which wouldn't solve the teen pregnancy problem.

"In my mind, talking about the problem isn't the same thing as addressing it," she said.

Christoffel told the Washington County Commissioners on Tuesday that the Health Department has received little help from the School Board in efforts to reduce the number of teens giving birth. He also called the Health Department's relationship with the School Board "difficult."

Christoffel said that in 2004, 206 females between the ages of 15 and 19 had babies, an increase from 185 births in 2003.

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Wagner said the curriculum meetings - one of which Christoffel attended - are open to the public. She said he made presentations to the School Board about teen pregnancy at least twice.

Wagner and other Board of Education officials said the school system has been working to prevent teen pregnancy, including through its curriculum, with the Health Department and community groups, and by offering after-school activities.

"Is there more we can do? Perhaps, yeah, but it can't be done in one day," board member Wayne D. Ridenour said.

Patricia Abernethy, deputy superintendent for instruction, said if students get pregnant, the school system will make sure they get support during pregnancy and after birth.

One thing the school system won't do is hand out contraceptives, Abernethy and Ed Masood, supervisor of athletics, health and physical education, said.

They said that decision should be up to the parents.

The school system teaches students about contraception in its family health curriculum, they said. School nurses may refer students to Health Department clinics, where contraceptives are available for no charge.

Masood said the resources provided by the clinics aren't usually advertised.

He said that "folks don't even have a clue that these items are available."

Students begin receiving family life instruction in public schools in fifth through eighth grades. It ends in 10th grade with a one-credit high school graduation requirement course, Masood said in a January memo to a School Board curriculum and instruction committee.

The earliest school systems in Maryland may begin teaching students about such issues is fifth grade, Masood and Abernethy said. They said that restriction is set by the state.

Family life instruction covers pregnancy and childbirth, contraception, parenting responsibilities, abstinence, sexually transmitted infections, and sexual abuse and rape.

Abernethy said teen pregnancy is an issue not only for the school system but for parents, civic groups, religious organizations, the business community and local governments.

One of the main tasks is to change the mind-set of teens that giving birth is acceptable, Abernethy said. She said many teens who have babies have family members who also were teen parents.

A post-partum survey conducted by the Health Department in 2003 revealed that 106 of 112 teen mothers had a family member who also was a teen parent.

"It's going to take a long time to change this," Abernethy said.

School officials said they don't anticipate Christoffel's comments to harm any efforts to reduce teen pregnancy.

"We're committed to the kids," said Robert "Bo" Myers, executive director of secondary school administration. "That's not going to be a barrier for the Board of Education or the staff."

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