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Condom Policies Move Up School Boards' Agendas

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By Ellen Flax

As New York City began its controversial program of distributing condoms in high schools without parental consent late last month, more than half a dozen other districts nationwide were either enacting or discussing a condom-distribution plan of their own.

Since the New York City Board of Education decided early this year to allow high-school students to receive condoms in school without the knowledge of their parents in an effort to reduce the spread of AIDS among teenagers, school officials in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Falmouth and Martha's Vineyard, Mass., have agreed to make condoms more available to students.

School boards in a number of other districts, including Los Angeles, Seattle, and Chester, Vt., are considering, or will soon consider, similar policies, while educators in Chelsea and Worcester, Mass., have rejected condom-distribution plans.

Pamela Haughton-Denniston, a spokesman for the Center for Population Options, a Washington-based group that supports greater condom availability in schools, said she believes that the publicity surrounding New York's plan, as well as the recent admission by the former basketball great Earvin (Magic) Johnson that he has tested positive for the virus that causes AIDS, have caused more schools to consider the issue.

"I think it has been put on more agendas where people thought they didn't have to think about it before," she said.

Brenda Greene, the AIDS-education manager for the National School Boards Association, said there has been "a flurry of interest over the past several months" in condom policies.

But this interest, she said, does not mean that educators find the issue any less controversial than when it was first proposed in New York more than a year ago.

"I think the great debate is how we limit the role of schools," she said. "This is not part of the traditional role of schools. People are looking for a place to draw the line, and a good place to draw that line is condoms."

A New Approach

According to the c.P.o., about 20 school-based clinics nationwide, including several in Chicago and Cambridge, Mass., are currently distributing contraceptives to students.

What is different about the current spate of proposals is that most would allow students to receive condoms from either a nurse or teacher, or via vending machines on school grounds. Besides New York, a small school district in Commerce City, Colo., now distributes condoms to high-school students, using teacher volunteers. In New York City, teachers and counselors at two of the city's 120 high schools began distributing condoms to students a few days before Thanksgiving without incident, said Kim Bohen, a district spokesman.

An additional 14 schools should begin their programs over the next several weeks, with the rest of the schools beginning theirs by the end of the academic year, Ms. Bohen said.

Under New York's plan, students can receive condoms on a confidential basis from staff volunteers according to a set schedule. Students are not required to be instructed or counseled about the use of condoms at the time they request them, although such information is available upon request. Students in the schools that have already begin to distribute condoms, do, however, receive instruction on condom use as part of an AIDS-prevention curriculum.

After several months of debate, the board voted in September to support a key element of the plan, proposed by Schools Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez that parents not be allowed to exempt their children from the program. Since then, a schoolboard member who strongly supports including an "opt out" provision has filed a lawsuit against the district.

Margot Fitzgerald, the AIDS-education coordinator at the City-As-School alternative high school in Manhattan that was one of the first two schools to begin distributing condoms last month, said she believes students have benefitted from the program. "The feedback that I've heard from the kids is that they support it," she said.

Others, however, still question the wisdom of making condoms available in school. Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, said a coalition of religious groups continues to object to the program on both health and moral grounds. Condoms, he said, are not 100 percent effective. Furthermore, he said, giving them out in school "gives [students] the implicit, if not the explicit message, that sex outside of marriage is O.K., as long as you don't get a disease."

Debate Elsewhere

In other states, meanwhile, educators and others continue to debate whether condoms should be made available in schools.

  • In Falmouth, Mass., school officials voted last month to install condom vending machines in the high school. Students in grades 7 and 8 will also be able to get condoms, but only from the school nurse.
  • Also in Massachusetts, the Boston University management team that runs the Chelsea school system voted against a condom plan last month, while approving an enhanced AIDS-education program.

Dr. Robert Master, the chairman of the health-services department in the university's school of public health, and a member of the management team, cast the sole vote in favor of condom distribution. "The public-health and medical people were unanimously behind this, and the professional educators were opposed," he said.

Superintendent Peter Greer said he believes the role of schools is to educate students about condoms, not to distribute them.

  • In Philadelphia, social workers and nurses not employed by the district will begin to hand out condoms upon request to students in four high schools before the Christmas break. Parents of these students have been mailed a letter telling them how to exempt their children from the program.
  • In Washington State, the Governor's Advisory Council on H.I.V./ AIDS recommended last month that junior and senior high schools provide students with greater access to condoms, dental dams (a latex square used during oral sex), and lubricants. Gov. Booth Gardner has not yet said if he will support the document.
  • The Seattle school board may vote this week on a proposal that would allow condoms to be distributed in the district's high schools. The Los Angeles board may vote on a similar plan next month.

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