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‘Above and beyond’ school physicals upset Buffalo parents

Two parents are angry that nurse practitioners in the Buffalo Public Schools examined, touched or tried to examine their children’s genital areas as part of physical exams to which the parents did not knowingly consent.

“My daughter was scared out of her wits,” said Edie Harris, mother of a 16-year-old student at Bennett High School.

Harris said she agreed to have her daughter receive a physical through the school recently so that the girl could play high school tennis. But she said she had no idea such an exam would involve a request that her daughter pull down her pants and answer personal questions about body hair growth and sexual activity.

Another parent, who had children ages 10 and 11 in sixth grade two years ago, said she had no idea a physical was even going to be performed on her children at school, much less that both children would be asked to remove all of their clothing.

Her son was left standing in nothing but his socks, she said.

“If this were your child, you would not want some random person looking at their private parts,” said mother Annette Jordan, whose children were attending Martin Luther King School at the time.

At issue is a component of physical exams know as the “Tanner staging,” which evaluates where a child is in their physical maturity.

“That element is part of a normal, complete physical exam,” said Dr. Steven Lana, medical director with the Buffalo Public Schools.

But while pediatricians consider this to be part of a complete physical exam, New York State Education Department guidelines generally only require this part of the exam for seventh- and eighth-graders seeking a waiver to participate in high school sports.

Lana said there may be a difference between what state regulations require and what is considered proper medical practice.

“What we’ve done is above and beyond, more than what is required in the state guidelines but what is in keeping with the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics,” he said. “Usually people are blamed for doing less. We’re getting blamed for doing more.”

Harris and Jordan are not only complaining about the Tanner staging component of the physical exam, but also of what they say is the district’s failure to properly communicate with parents and children regarding why the exam was undertaken and a failure to gain proper consent. They also said they were troubled that their children were examined without a parent or chaperone present to ensure the children’s safety.

Finally, Harris also pointed out that state guidelines do not require Tanner staging for girls such as her daughter, a high school junior, who had already started menstruating.

Lana said more should be done to ensure parents can give informed consent regarding exams.

That includes providing more information about what a comprehensive physical exam entails.

He also said parents should be taking their children to their own primary care physician for annual physical exams. But in cases where parents haven’t done this, physicals are performed by nurse practitioners in schools as a service to children and their families.

“Unfortunately, there’s more than medicine involved in this,” Lana said. “There’s an element of mistrust.”