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Friday, Dec. 14, 2007 | A 15-year-old girl stumbled into the school nurse’s office in November with a headache, and ended the night with a Caesarean section. Eight months pregnant, she had concealed the fact from her parents, and never before approached the nurse, Kathy Ryan.
Telling Mom and Dad
She wound up in the hospital, a premature baby in her arms.
Her case was harrowing. But it wasn’t unique. Every week, at least one pregnant teen walks into Ryan’s office at Lincoln High School, Ryan said. Under a decades-old policy of San Diego Unified School District, Ryan must call the girls’ parents, and tell them that their daughters are pregnant.
Ryan never has.
“I won’t do it,” she said.
If girls fear a call home, Ryan said, they won’t trust her. And if they don’t trust her, they’ll never walk through her door.
San Diego Unified’s rule, now up for revision, sparked controversy earlier this year when voiceofsandiego.org uncovered the little-known policy. Civil libertarians and pro-choice advocates argued the rule violated California privacy law and defied a 2004 state attorney general’s opinion. Nurses complained that it pitted their loyalties as medical professionals against the district’s dictates.
Debate erupted again this week, when school trustees reconsidered the rule. Under a new proposal, school staffers would be able to notify parents if doing so would “avert a clear and present danger to the health, safety or welfare of the minor student.” The controversial policy was crafted by an Irvine attorney linked to a pro-life church — a fact that worries one school trustee, who questions the lawyer’s impartiality.
Critics shunned the new rule from both sides. Some argue schools should never contact parents. Others contend they always should.
“These are sound policies,” said Assemblyman Joel Anderson (R-El Cajon), who staged a press conference Tuesday outside the school board, urging trustees to uphold the policy. “Why change something that’s working?”
School nurses such as Ryan say they rarely enforce the rule. Critics also worry that the policy puts school nurses in a double bind when deciding whether to call a pregnant teen’s parents. Nurses who skirt the rule risk penalties from their supervisors, said Andrea Guerrero, field and policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial counties.
“And there’s always the risk that a nurse does call a parent, and exercises his or her judgment to the detriment of the student,” Guerrero said. “… Following the law is not optional.”
San Diego’s policy is unusual, but not unique. School districts in Rocklin and Roseville prohibit teens from leaving campus for confidential medical care, including abortion, unless their parents know. In 2004, California’s attorney general opined that the policies flouted state law. Yet the rules persist in schools, even after voters turned down parental notification laws twice at the ballot box.
“It’s not technically binding on the court, but the courts give [the attorney general’s opinion] great, great weight,” said David Blair-Loy, the local ACLU legal director. “And we’re also talking about a constitutional right to privacy. That trumps everything.”
Attorney’s Church Ties Raise Questions
Irvine attorney Douglas Abendroth shaped the revised rule. He once taught at Christ Church Presbyterian in nearby Tustin, he said, and helped the church incorporate. The church belongs to the Presbyterian Church in America, which opposes abortion. Its tax filings are addressed to Abendroth’s previous law office.
Though a fellow church’s website identifies Abendroth as the fledgling church’s pastor, Abendroth is not an ordained minister. He called himself “just a layman” in the church.
“I’m not an anti-abortion person, personally, and a lot of people (in the church) are not,” Abendroth said. Nor do his views matter, he argued, since attorneys routinely argue cases they may or may not agree with. “Why is being a member of a church relevant to anything?”
But Abendroth’s history troubled Shelia Jackson, a school board member who asked to tweak the policy differently to match Planned Parenthood’s advice. Her proposal would prevent staffers from calling parents of pregnant teens. Board members nearly voted on Jackson’s idea Tuesday, but held off when Abendroth and district legal counsel Ted Buckley asked to revise the rule again.
Abendroth’s faith alone doesn’t worry Jackson, who is also Christian. His actions do, in light of that faith.
“He was very adamant about not changing the policy,” said Jackson. “That raises red flags. Has he let [his religion] color what we’re doing?”
The Irvine attorney never hid his faith. When Buckley chose Abendroth out of roughly 10 firms regularly consulted by the school district, he knew of Abendroth’s religiosity, and didn’t doubt his judgment. Legal ethics expert Diane Karpman said that if attorneys tell their clients about potentially conflicting beliefs, they eliminate the conflict.
“Ted (Buckley) believes that Doug is one of the best attorneys around, and has confidence in the work he has done for us,” said Jack Brandais, spokesman for San Diego Unified.
Yet in June, Buckley refused to name which firm would review the sensitive policy. A public records request for the agreement between San Diego Unified and the firm, filed by voiceofsandiego.org, went unanswered. Buckley said he didn’t want the firm to be pressured.
Attorneys vouching for and against the policy rely on different codes to back their case. Abendroth relied on California’s education code, which permits schools to tell parents “information of a personal nature” if doing so will protect the student’s safety.
Opponents from Planned Parenthood and the ACLU say that statute can’t override the privacy protections hewn into California’s constitution, nor the state family code, which entitles a pregnant minor to “the full range of medical care related to her pregnancy” without notifying a parent. Pro-life groups argue that privacy extends only between a nurse and a student patient — not to other school staffers who are bound by the rule.
Bounced back to attorneys a second time, the policy is up for debate again in January.