Bill that would expand school health clinics faces opposition from anti-abortion groups

Los Angeles, Mendez High School in Boyle Heights last month unveiled a new, 6,500-square-foot health clinic on campus. CREDIT: KATE VALDEZ / BOYLE HEIGHTS BEAT

A bill that would double the number of health clinics on school  campuses is headed to Gov.Gavin Newsom for approval amid objections from anti-abortion groups that claim the clinics would make it easier for students to end pregnancies.

Assembly Bill 1940, would set aside $100 million for schools to build or expand an estimated 200 health clinics offering free medical care, dental services, mental health counseling, reproductive health care and other services for students and, in some cases, the surrounding community.

“There’s so much urgency, so much passion and need for this right now,” said Gabrielle Tilley, senior policy manager at the Los Angeles Trust for Children’s Health, one of the organizations supporting the bill.

“We have the money, and we have a new awareness of the massive inequities in our state — this seems like a perfect time to make this happen.”

The current state budget does not include money for AB 1940, so the state would have to fund the bill in next year’s budget. Advocates are hopeful because it could bolster Newsom’s other priorities, including community schools, the Children and Youth Behavioral Health Initiative and efforts to streamline Medi-Cal benefits — all of which are well funded in this year’s budget.

Advocates have been pushing for school-based health centers for decades. A similar law passed in 2006 but was never funded, leaving districts to find alternative ways to pay for the infrastructure and services needed to create full-service health centers on K-12 campuses. Of the estimated 200 clinics that already exist, some are operated by school districts, and some are run by outside agencies, such as Planned Parenthood or St. John’s Community Health in Los Angeles.

The PUSD Wellness Center table stocked with information and resources for returning students in 2021.

Research shows that on-campus health clinics can have wide-reaching benefits for students as well as their families. School attendance for students who visited their campus health clinic rose 5 to 7 days per year, even when their attendance was declining prior to their first visit, according to a study of 23 school-based health centers in Los Angeles Unified. Good attendance is linked to higher graduation rates and better academic performance.

Students who visited school clinics also had lower discipline rates and were less likely to drop out of school, according to the California School-Based Health Alliance. The clinics also lowered health-care costs generally, with fewer patients going to the emergency room or developing serious, preventable conditions.

According to the report, which was complied by the Los Angeles Trust for Children’s Health, the most common reasons students visited their campus health clinics were for vaccines, help to manage their weight, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, contraception, mental health counseling, help with substance abuse and treatment for chronic conditions such as asthma and diabetes.  

Advocates say there is widespread support for the idea of basic medical care for children, available free at school. But some groups oppose clinics that provide reproductive health services for students under age 18, especially considering that California law allows minors to obtain treatment for sexual and reproductive health, substance abuse and mental health services without permission from — or notification of — their parents.

Their fear is that clinics will dispense pills that end a pregnancy, or refer pregnant girls to outside clinics that provide surgical abortions, without parents’ knowledge or permission and paid for with public dollars.

“Public schools should not be places where children can get an abortion,” said Susan Swift, vice president of legal affairs for the Right to Life League, which seeks to ban abortions.

“This is yet another attempt to separate parents and children, and they’re using the state Department of Education to do it. … This is a huge deal.”

As an alternative, Swift’s group would like to see schools notify parents immediately if a student is pregnant, refer students to prenatal care and offer information about adoption and parenting.

In light of the Supreme Court’s recent overturn of Roe vs. Wade, Swift is hopeful that legislators will reconsider efforts to provide reproductive health services on campus, even in left-leaning California.

Services at school health clinics vary depending on the school, district and outside agency providing care, but in general, school-based health clinics do not provide abortions on campus, said Lisa Eisenberg, director of policy and external affairs for the California School-Based Health Alliance. If a pregnant student comes to a school-based health center, staff are likely to offer counseling and support and refer them to other resources, though each clinic is free to operate as it sees fit.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Mendez High School in Boyle Heights last month unveiled a new, 6,500-square-foot health clinic on campus. The largest such health center in LAUSD, the clinic has 12 rooms for medical, dental, optical and mental health visits. The center has two entrances — one for students and one for the public — and is expected to be a hub in the predominantly low-income Latino community. 

It’s also expected to aid students’ education and career planning by offering internships for students who hope to enter the medical field.

“The opening of the Sylvia Mendez Wellness Center will mark a historic milestone for the Boyle Heights community,” said Maria Brenes, executive director for InnerCity Struggle, a local community group, according to a release from the district. “After many years of organizing and advocacy by students, families, school leadership and community residents, the Wellness Center will be a reality that will serve as a much-needed health resource for our community.”

The district also opened a new wellness center that will serve two high schools in the San Fernando Valley. The $11.31 million Balboa Student and Family Wellness Center will provide medical and mental health services to students as well as their families and members of the community.

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