Dozens of Los Angeles high schools will soon host clinics providing sexual and mental health services for teenagers as part of a wellness program that officials say is a groundbreaking model of comprehensive on-campus care.
The school-based clinics announced this week are a collaboration between Planned Parenthood and county public and mental health officials, and will ultimately be available to roughly 75,000 teens at 50 schools. They will offer birth control, emergency contraception like Plan B, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy testing and counseling, and a range of mental health and substance abuse resources.
The reproductive health services extend beyond what public school nurses have traditionally offered, and because California law permits teens older than 12 to receive birth control and related treatment without parental consent, the care is confidential. The centers do not offer abortions.
The “wellbeing centers” will also be staffed by two health educators with master’s degrees in public health, who will facilitate classes and groups on substance use prevention, behavioral health and sexual health. The county’s mental health department will run support groups on stress, anxiety and depression.
Dr Ron Tanimura, director of student medical services at the Los Angeles unified school district (LAUSD), said he expected the centers would help reduce STD and STI rates, which have been increasing in recent years in the region.
“When we are looking at the rise of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis rates, we want to make sure we are approaching this as a public health issue,” said Tanimura. “Now we have an avenue for kids to seek services right there. They don’t have to miss school.”
The program is launching at a time when the White House and conservative groups have aggressively targeted Planned Parenthood. Earlier this year, the organization withdrew from a federal family program that provides health services and birth control after the Trump administration passed a new rule banning referrals to doctors who perform abortions.
Under Trump, the health and human services department has also promoted sexual education that emphasizes abstinence despite overwhelming evidence that this kind of curriculum does not change teen sexual behavior or prevent pregnancy. California prohibits abstinence-only education and requires more comprehensive programs. Last year, legislators also passed a new law mandating that public colleges provide abortion medication.
The involvement of Planned Parenthood in LA schools has already sparked some backlash from conservative groups and rightwing media, though officials have emphasized that the organization and the reproductive health services are just one component of the larger wellness initiative. Planned Parenthood is currently operating in five of the sites, but it plans to expand to other schools.
“Young people trust Planned Parenthood with those services,” said Ellen Sanchez, a consultant with the public health department. “They know they will get honest and accurate information and their confidentiality will be protected.”
Kanchi Tate, a program manager with the LA department of mental health, said it was critical that students have access to a private setting to ask questions about sexual or mental healthcare: “You may have a student suffering for a long time or they may know something is not right, but they don’t know where to go … If it’s on campus, it’s part of the conversation and it becomes normal.”
Roughly one in four students report feeling depressed, said Dr Barbara Ferrer, LA county director of public health: “We have a lot of evidence about the high levels of trauma that students have experienced … This combines the best we know about the kind of services that young people are asking for and are in need of.”
Ferrer said the county could not shy away from reproductive health services even if it inspired controversy: “We’re not going to ignore a whole set of needs that young people have. We have a lot of students that are sexually active. We can’t put our heads in the sand.”
Dr Brian Nguyen, a University of Southern California assistant professor of OB/GYN, who is not affiliated with the program, said he expected the services could help reduce rising STI rates in the region.
“When you bring the services to people, they’ll use it,” he said, noting that women tend to take care of their sexual health more than men. He hoped this would fix that disparity in schools: “It ensures that a wider audience that would ordinarily not engage in sexual reproductive health would have access.”