District's Condom Plan: 'Education Plus Safety'
Commerce City, Colo.--When things started to get "hot and heavy" between Brian and his girlfriend last year, the Adamsy High School senior recalls, he turned to his school nurse for protection The nurse, after sitting him through a 10-minute counseling session, gave him a condom
Such a scenario has occurred several dozen times this year at this suburban Denver school, where the school nurse and teachers distribute condoms on request to students.
Sexual activity, along with concerns about aids, makes this program "a responsible thing to do."
Critics, he says, do not understand the seriousness of the problem
"Kids have always involved themselves to some extent in premarital sex," he says. "For those kids that make that choice, we have to make it as safe an experience as possible."
"To not do that would be to take the ostrich approach to life," he says.
The district's condom-distribution program is an outgrowth of a broad aids policy narrowly adopted by the school board in 1988. At the time, school officials say, the condom policy was highly controversial. But since its passage, several observers say, public protest against the program has been limited
Officials interviewed here express that their district, which is heavily Catholic, would be on the vanguard of such an issue.
They note, however, that the district is located in a county with the second-highest teenage pregnancy rate in the state--a clear indication that many students are sexually active. In a recent month, about 14 girls at this high school were pregnant, Sue Nash, the nurse for both high schools
"I think we have a very aggressive superintendent and a board that was very unusual," says Beth Gallegos, vice president of the school board.
Ms. Gallegos, who voted against the proposal and says she still questions whether the district should be distributing condoms, notes that "some on the board felt it would be good to be pioneers on this."
About a year after the board's vote, an aids-policy committee, which includes Ms. Gallegos, other educators, medical personnel, and a priest, approved a plan that allowed the school nurse and two workers from a local health clinic to distribute condoms on request to students after they had received counseling.
Under the program, students are taught that abstaining from sex is the most effective way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases, including aids. They are also taught how to use a condom. The same information is included in a semester-long health-education class that all freshmen are required to take.
But a grant that funded the clinic workers expired in late 1989, and Ms. Nash alone had to handle condom requests at both district high schools through last December.
Recognizing that the program was understaffed, the aids committee decided that teachers and counselors should be recruited to do the job. After undergoing a two-day training session late last year, 15 educators at Adams City, as well as 4 educators at the smaller, alternative high school, began distributing condoms Ms. Nash says the committee sought faculty members representing different subject areas and ethnic backgrounds to be in the program. At Adams City, the volunteers, including Ms. Nash, are female.
Since the beginning of the school year, says the nurse, nearly 10 students have received condoms at both high schools, and about 2 have returned for reorders. An equal number of boys and girls have requested condoms, Ms. Nash says. About 45condoms, all donated by the state health department, have been distributed this year to the district's approximately 1,50high-school students.
At first, students were allowed to take as many condoms as they wanted, she says. This year, they are limited to five per visit,returning as many times as they want or need.Ms. Nash says students typically raise the issue with a teacher after class, and make appointments for before or after school to receive the counseling and the condoms. After their initial request, students do not have to sit through a full counseling session again, she says
"We're convinced that if we can really connect with kids and can convince even one kid to rethink what they're doing, our efforts are worthwhile," says the nurse, adding that at least three students have decided to postpone having sex after going through the counseling session. John Rocheleau, a math teacher who has given condoms to about 15 students, says this session is spelled out in a loosely drawn script for all the teachers in the program. In a mock session he performs for a visitor, Mr. Rocheleau starts by explaining that everything said during a counseling session is confidential. However, he says, he needs to know the student's name which will not be recorded, to ensure that he or she is not one of the students in the school whose parents have said should not receive a condom. Then the math teacher explains that, while abstinence is the only sure-fire way to avoid diseases, sexually active people, should always use a condom
Using a plastic banana that has been provided to all the volunteers,
he demonstrates the proper way to unfurl a condom,and then remove a
used one. "Make sure there is enough room for the semen," he says.Mr.
Rocheleau closes the session by outlining ways to avoid the virus that
causes aids, and allowing the student to ask questions. The math
teacher says he feels perfectly comfortable taking part in this
program. "I think the important selling point is that we are educators,
and we are trying to help the kids," he says. In contrast, Karen
Waples, a social-studies teacher who volunteered to be in the
program, says she initially had some misgivings. "To me, the balance was tipped, when I thought, 'Gee, there is a disease out there that can kill,"' she says.
Many students, she reports, feel uncomfortable broaching the subject with her;
"When they approach me, they always start out by saying, 'I hope you won't think anything bad of me, but ..."' she says with a laugh. "I tell them, 'Oh, come on in, sit down. I have presents for you. I think you're a really responsible person for coming in here."
Students Voice Support
Standing beside the orange lockers that line the school's hallways, students voiced strong support for the distribution policy.Although few admitted to using the service themselves, most said they liked knowing that such an option was available
"Students feel more comfortable talking to their teachers about it than going to the grocery store," says Misty, a 12th grader
Gina, a sophomore, says that, "if I had to go, I guess I would go." Her brother, she says, has sought out a teacher to get a condom. "He was embarrassed," she recalls, but has said "he would go back." Bryant, also a sophomore, says he supports the distribution policy because he feels uncomfortable when he has to buy condoms at the drugstore. "You put it under the bubble gum and try to hide it," he says. Pam, a junior, says she thinks the policy will help reduce the school's high pregnancy rate-
"It will encourage the boys to protect themselves," she says. "I think they should start handing out birth control to the girls,too."
Gabe, a junior, says he got the courage to ask his teacher for a condom when he saw that several of his friends were doing the same. "It saved a lot of girls from getting pregnant," he says
Despite the generally good reviews for the program, some in the school question whether more students would seek condoms if there was no mandatory counseling component. That was a major issue as well in New York City, where Schools Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez successfully convinced the school board not to include such counseling sessions because they would act as a deterrent to some students
Going a step further, a recent editorial in the Adams City school newspaper suggests that distributing condoms through vending machines would be better, "because the students would be able to keep the whole affair completely to themselves." For now, however, school officials say they doubt such a change will occur in the near future.
"It's not a perfect system for all kids," Mr. Budde, the principal, acknowledges
But Ms. Gallegos, the board member, adds, "If your objective is
safety, I don't think you can throw the education part through the window."