By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Although the buzz in the halls of the Capitol earlier today was that the school board would give the nod to distribution of contraceptives on school property, advocates for the change were worried that angry rabble-rousers might cause the board to catch a case of cold feet. So a few of them, like Tracy and MOAPPP's co-executive director, Nancy Nelson, have shown up to keep board members focused on the fact that the schools already give students vouchers to get birth control at community clinics, but 80 percent of the boys and 30 percent of the girls did not redeem them, either because, school officials surmise, it was considered too embarrassing or too inconvenient. "What with the recent violence in the schools and the sense that we're losing control of our kids, people are becoming more conservative," Nelson says later. "It's understandable, but it's an authoritarian, knee-jerk response. We're not listening to the kids. We're not paying attention to the facts."
Of the more than 150 people on site to offer public comment before the board makes a final decision, only a couple dozen are fighting for Health Start Inc., the nonprofit group that runs clinics in St. Paul's seven high schools and would be empowered, with a yes vote here, to dispense the Pill, spermicide, and condoms. Tracy, Phillips, and a handful of public health advocates stand in the back of the room. Everyone else has come to just say no.
Despite the uneven numbers, board chair Mary Thornton Phillips, a teacher's teacher whose exacting demeanor indicates little patience for chaos, makes sure each side is given a fair hearing. For well over an hour, those for and against the status quo speak alternately, as if Thornton Phillips were presiding over a debate club.
A junior from St. Paul Ramsey High School, her voice made shaky by anger: "This proposal is an insult to teenagers. Do you really believe we're not smart enough to get birth control on our own? This is an insult to the teenagers who are choosing not to have sex."
The crowd thunders its approval. A few people stand as they clap.
A retired nurse, wagging her finger at the school board: "There are children out there who are going to have sex. Give these young people a safe haven. This is an ethical decision. Have the courage to do the right thing."
The minority strains to register on the applause meter. Tracy's public policy programs coordinator, Jeremy Hanson, a 26-year-old lobbyist, lets out a lone whoop.
A nurse with five children, three of whom are in the public schools and one of whom was born when she was still in high school: "We have to say no to sex. Having contraception will only make the temptation greater."
Another long, loud roar. And on it goes, back and forth, those opposed to birth control in the schools breaking into cheers, those in favor doing their best not to look discouraged. At one point, the proceedings begin to resemble an episode of The Jerry Springer Show, when a young father leaps up and shakes his fists as he lambastes the liberal establishment. "I'm getting really, really tired of things being misplaced," he spits. "You want to give your kids condoms, put them in your candy dishes at home! But leave my kids alone." As the room erupts, Thornton Phillips--facing the assembly--peers over her glasses, lips pursed into a tight, bemused smile. You get the sense that were this her homeroom, there'd be hell to pay.
Eventually, Tracy makes his way to the lectern. Later in the evening, Thornton Phillips will reference his speech, adopt its central argument, take up its plea for kids who will ultimately fall through the cracks of an absolutist agenda. In a polished, passionate oratory that silences the room, she will push the board to its 5-to-2 vote in favor of birth control in the schools. At the moment, though, it's not clear that a yes vote is inevitable. So Tracy comes to the podium, identifies himself as gay, then spins a personal anecdote about a friend whose usually responsible teenage girl decided to have sex. Because she was cautious and used condoms, he says, she managed to weather it without getting pregnant or contracting an STD. He talks about kids with parents who are abusive or who have neither the time nor the inclination to reinforce an abstinence-only curriculum. He talks about health organizations that unequivocally support a lesson plan that teaches responsibility, whether or not a student decides to become sexually active. He reminds the crowd about AIDS--that it kills, that it can be prevented.
As Tracy walks down the center aisle to his spot at the back of the room, the room bristles as it shifts. The whispers make up a hiss. Two men near the back exit clench their teeth while jutting their wagging chins in disgust.
Tracy, avoiding the aftershock with a hard, high stare, falls back into a squat. He rests his head in his hand and breathes deeply.
Act Two: Mother Knows Best
The reputation that precedes them conjures a caricature. Conservative commentators such as Katherine Kersten, director of the Center of the American Experiment, in Minneapolis, and frequent contributor to the Star Tribune's op-ed page, paints them as moral revolutionaries, the praiseworthy antithesis to America's "knowledge class" and the American Civil Liberties Union. Pundits perched on the left wing portray them as zealots clad in blinders, automatons following marching orders handed down by the Beltway's religious right. Before meeting them face to face, you might expect these (in)famous women to be wearing tea-length skirts with their hair in tight buns, banging oversized editions of the King James Bible.