In a decision hailed by supporters as "a bold move" but denounced by opponents as a means of promoting birth control, the Santa Ana Unified School District will become the first district in Orange County to establish a mobile health clinic for elementary pupils.
After almost four hours of emotional and heated testimony from the public, the district's Board of Education voted, 4-1, shortly after midnight Wednesday to develop a clinic geared toward low-income, kindergarten-through-fifth-grade pupils who are at risk of developing learning difficulties because of inadequate health care.
The decision followed months of heated debate that pitted citizens who fear that the clinic will pave the way for school-based abortion referrals and for distribution of birth-control devices, against people who have appealed to the district to address chronic health problems among pupils, many of whom come from poor families.
The clinic, which district officials hope to get under way in early fall, will be funded by outside resources and be run by a full-time staff to include a nurse practitioner, a medical assistant and a social worker.
A schedule for the mobile clinic has yet to be determined, but district officials said it will concentrate on seven schools in eastern and central Santa Ana, where the need is greatest. The clinic, which will operate at an annual cost of about $150,000, can visit two or more schools per week.
The facility will provide services such as physicals, immunizations and treatment of minor health problems--but only with parental consent. It will also include programs designed to teach parents about preventive medicine and how to improve their access to community medical services, district officials said.
District officials became convinced of the need for the clinic after holding health screenings late last year at Grant and Roosevelt elementary schools. Of 107 first- and fourth-grade pupils examined, 88% had untreated health problems.
But the proposal drew fire from a coalition of county residents concerned with birth control issues. The group has lobbied against the proposal since it was made public in December. About half of the 400 people who attended Tuesday night's board meeting showed up wearing bright-red tags made of construction paper reading, "Education Not Medication."
Board members approved the clinic on condition that its operators avoid addressing family-planning issues. They rejected claims from opponents who said the district was overstepping its bounds by getting involved in health care.
"Education cannot continue with a traditional way of doing business," school board President Sal Mendoza said. "Education really has to take some bold steps in a lot of areas that maybe people think we shouldn't be involved in. We have to deal with the reality of what's out there."
The board's endorsement of the proposal came as a disappointment to Westminster resident Viola Floth, who had lobbied heavily against the plan since December and mobilized the coalition consisting of hundreds of people to speak out against the plan this week and at previous board meetings.
"I think the board is being fooled," Floth said shortly after the vote early Wednesday. "I think they are being used and are biting off more than they can chew, and they don't realize it."
But strong support for the clinic was voiced by other speakers.
"A majority of the students in this district are very poor and Hispanic," said Maria Concepcion Sixtos, who has three children attending Grant Elementary School. "The hope is that they will grow up to be strong and healthy and be able to come back and contribute something to their community."