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Perham parents want attendance policy changed

Some parents are asking the Perham-Dent School District to rewrite its attendance policy, wanting it to be more transparent about the practice of allowing kids to leave school to receive mental and physical health care or substance abuse care - without parents knowing about it.

School board members and administrators say the policy follows Minnesota's minors' consent laws. These laws, first enacted in 1971, give kids under the age of 18 the right to confidential medical attention for pregnancy, venereal disease, alcohol or drug use.

But some parents here disagree with the laws, and want the school district to be more open about minors' consent and how the laws are practiced in the schools. They shared their thoughts and concerns at a school board meeting last week.

The unofficial spokesperson for the parents at that meeting, Bridgit Pankonin, said nowhere in the district's current attendance policy does it state that a school will allow a minor to leave the building without parental consent. Instead, the current policy states students must have a signed note from a parent, or a phone call from a parent, in order to leave the school.

"Ninth and tenth graders can't leave school for lunch, yet a 13-year-old can go to Family Planning?" questioned Pankonin.

Another parent, Lisa Fultz, said the risk factor was high by letting kids leave the school. When a parent believes their children are at school, they expect their children to be at school, she said.

Superintendent Mitch Anderson responded by saying there are situations in which school administrators, as mandated reporters, do not tell parents about something because it's not in the child's best interest. The intent of minors' consent laws is to protect minors in bad situations, allowing them to get the health care they need. He said many school districts in Minnesota have similar policies in compliance with the laws.

Pankonin said the laws are "written for providers, not the schools."

She and other parents at the meeting believe minors have the right to go to the doctor without parental consent, according to the laws, but that the laws do not require schools to release kids without permission.

School board members disagreed, and had an attorney's opinion to back them. The board obtained a written legal opinion on the matter in March. According to Minneapolis-based law firm Ratwik, Roszak and Maloney, information in student records that pertains to minors' consent-related medical issues should not be released to parents unless "failing to do so would seriously jeopardize the health of the minor."

Though parents at the meeting stated that they do not agree, they deemed the district's legal opinion as thorough enough to justify the current practice. Without a legal opinion of their own, the parents cannot fight the issue any longer, Pankonin said. She was unsure whether the parents would seek out their own legal opinion.

Middle school Principal Scott Bjerke said school administrators use discretion when dealing with students who leave school under minors' consent laws. He said if a minor came to him and asked to go to family planning for contraceptives, he would usually tell them to wait until after school. However, if a minor thinks she is pregnant, administrators have no choice but to let her out of school.

After much discussion, the school board directed Superintendent Anderson and high school Principal Ehren Zimmerman to look into rewording the attendance policy to make it clearer.

School board member Sue Von Ruden explained to the parents that while the district will look into how the attendance policy is written, because the school board already obtained a legal opinion advising them to continue the policy, the policy itself will not change.

Conversations about this issue began between school officials and parents in November 2011, after a presentation by a local Family Planning clinic to Perham's ninth grade health class. It was then that the district's attendance policy - and the minors' consent laws - first became known to some parents.