Reading School Board considers reproductive health program

READING, Pa. - It was a year ago that the Reading School Board rejected a reproductive health program for its students at Reading High School.

The program would have been supervised by AccessMatters, and provided students with condoms, counseling and sexually transmitted disease testing. It generated a lot of controversy surrounding the involvement of Planned Parenthood.

Now, the school board is revisiting the topic, starting with a presentation from new proposed health resource sponsor, Co-County Wellness Services, during Wednesday evening's committee of the whole meeting.

Board President Dr. Brian Buerke introduced the topic and presentation by simply saying, "this item has a history to it," and that the topic is admittedly "controversial." He added that the "majority of the board would be supportive of a venture like this if a different partner was involved."

Enter Co-County Wellness Services – Executive Director Carolyn Bazik explained who would play each anticipated role in a health resource center at Reading High School, and what would be needed of the district.

The health resource center would be locally managed by Co-County Wellness Services in conjunction with Berks Teens Matter.

Co-County Wellness Services has been around for 33 years. Core services it provides include case management and screening and treatment for STDs. Its largest served population includes those affected by HIV and AIDS. In fact, they have been involved in HIV education in health classes at Reading schools for many years.

Of the proposed health resource center, Bazik stated that, "Co-County Services does not have an agenda." She added that their sole role would be to hire the staff who would be placed in the school district.

Jen May, project director of Berks Teens Matter, deconstructed the goal of a health resource center to simply "help young people make responsible choices to stay healthy."

The Co-County Wellness Services employee would be stationed at Reading High School and available for students to visit if they so chose before, during or after school hours. This employee would be at the school 20 hours per week.

The duties of this coordinator would include implementation of school-wide health awareness campaigns, providing assistance to teachers and one on one counseling to students on topics such as healthy relationships, pregnancy prevention and STD and HIV prevention.

Regarding pregnancy prevention, May stated, "there are no other options we are bringing to the table other than condoms." Condoms could be disseminated to students by this coordinator if they were deemed at risk for unsafe sexual behavior.

The coordinator could also choose to refer a student to an outside agency should the student require or benefit from additional services that the coordinator could not provide. Co-County has a large menu of available places to refer to, some including Tower Health and Penn State Health practices, Berks Community Health Center and Planned Parenthood.

Board member Bernardo Carbajal skirted the topic of referrals to Planned Parenthood by asking what the coordinator would advise a 15-year-old girl coming in at one month pregnant?

Bazik responded that there is "a menu of possible options," and that each student case would require different needs. She added, "if this program works we won't even have to think about abortion because the students won't be getting pregnant in the first place."

Regarding the overarching decision to implement a health resource center, May said, "this decision should be based on what is good for the students of the Reading School District."

Added Bazik, "The best birth control is education."

Other business

Also addressed during the meeting, in the area of administration, the school board will be prepared to vote on the plan to move 9th grade classes to the high school beginning with the 2019-2020 school year.

Superintendent Khalid Mumin was "overjoyed" that this idea that was in process for four years is finally coming to fruition.

The Reading School Board will meet again to vote on items discussed at this meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 22.

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