School nurses don't withhold sex education, official says
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- While school nurses in Kanawha County do not give students condoms or other forms of birth control, they regularly tell them where to find free contraceptives, according to Brenda Isaac, lead school nurse and coordinator of health services for Kanawha County Schools.
"Students can come to a school nurse in any of the schools and ask about birth control," Isaac said. "We're happy to do that. It's an area we're very familiar with, and it's part of the health curriculum."
But a student's request for an injunction filed Monday against George Washington High School Principal George Aulenbacher alleges that he prohibited those teachings and requested that the school nurse teach an abstinence-only curriculum.
Katelyn Campbell, GW's student body vice president, asked for an injunction in Kanawha County Circuit Court because she says Aulenbacher threatened her college career after she spoke out against an abstinence-only assembly led by a Christian public speaker at the school last week.
"I should be able to be informed in my school what birth control is and how I can get it," Campbell said. "With the policy at GW, under George Aulenbacher, information about birth control and sex education has been suppressed. Our nurse wasn't allowed to talk about where you can get birth control for free in ... Charleston."
During the assembly, speaker Pam Stenzel was recorded saying "condoms aren't safe" and allegedly told students, "If your mom gives you birth control, she probably hates you."
A GW parent also accused the school nurse, Lara Barber, of withholding information about birth control from students at Aulenbacher's request.
Isaac said that is false.
"I know for a fact [Barber] goes into the health classes and teaches a comprehensive sexuality education. In Kanawha County, the school nurses answer to me," she said. "The principal usually has a very collaborative relationship with the school nurse, but they don't deter what she does or doesn't do."
School nurses are directed to tell students that they can receive birth control at the health department or local women's health centers, Isaac said.
"When talking to young people about sexuality, it's not just about what's going to happen Saturday night, it's about at some point in your life, you're going to be making these decisions, so we want them to have all the facts -- not erroneous information or a lack of information," she said.
Since Campbell's outcry over the assembly, the incident has sparked national attention and landed the 17-year-old Charleston student an interview on CNN earlier this week.
Isaac said the controversy further spotlighted sex education in Kanawha County, which has already been emphasized more in recent years because of teen pregnancy rates.
While West Virginia's teen birth rate fell in 2010 to 45 births per 1,000 teen girls, the state still ranks among the 10 highest in the country for children born to teen mothers, according to a Kids Count report.
"We stress abstinence as the very first thing we do because it's the best way to prevent disease and pregnancy, but then we continue to talk about what to do when you do have sex," Isaac said. "We're not just teaching kids what to do today, we're teaching them what to do 10 years from now too.
"It's definitely something that has moved to the forefront," she said. "I know that schools are exploring curriculums and they realize we need to provide more information and answer more questions."
School nurses play a big role in sex education in Kanawha County, and health teachers often call on them to visit classrooms. Still, other health professionals make school visits too, Isaac said.
Adolescent pregnancy prevention specialists talk to public school students across the state about "the problems associated with early sexual activity and childbearing," according to the state Department of Health and Human Resources' website.
In 2011, specialists from the state Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Initiative made more than 430 classroom presentations, and about 11,000 students participated. That's nearly 200 more classroom visits than a year earlier.
"Even when you have an outside speaker, which can be very valuable -- especially when it's a physician, it's important that students see the school nurse as a resource because she's going to be there after the speaker leaves," Isaac said. "If they don't understand something, we want them to know it's OK to ask us.
"I think our role in health and in education is to give students the factual knowledge that they need to make informed decisions."
Reach Mackenzie Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4814.