Condom Plan for N.Y.C.'s Schools Prompts Debate Among Educators, Health Experts

By Ellen Flax — March 13, 1991 4 min read

Two weeks after the New York City Board of Education adopted a controversial plan to distribute condoms in all of the district’s high schools, local and national debate about the plan’s merits, and its possible influence on other districts, continues unabated.

Under the policy approved by a closely divided board late last month, the district will become the first in the country to distribute condoms to students on an unrestricted basis, without parental consent.

tors and health experts said last week that condom distribution alone will not significantly curtail the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, including aids, or curb the teenage-pregnancy rate.

Most of them stressed that any condom-distribution program must be part of a broader aids-prevention or sex-education curriculum. In New York City, students will have to complete an aids curriculum, which is still being developed, before obtaining the free condoms.

Condom distribution “should be done in the context of a comprehensive aids-education program,” said Cherrie B. Boyer, an assistant adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of California at San Francisco.

“We don’t want to say, ‘Condoms, condoms, condoms,’ and say it’s a panacea for everything,” said Ms. Boyer, who has studied condom use among teenagers.

Still, some experts suggested that the New York decision might be a harbinger of similar moves by other districts.

“It provides a message to other school superintendents that they can [propose a condom plan] and pass it,” said Debra W. Haffner, the executive director of the Sex Information and Education Council of the U.S. “I think it’s going to be a green light for other communities.”

In several districts, including Dade County, Fla., and the District of Columbia, school officials said they were going to keep close tabs on the progress of the New York program.

“Students have said to me, ‘If you all believe that condoms are the best way to reduce the transmission of [aids], why don’t you give out condoms?”’ said Jackie Sadler, the aids-education program director for the Washington schools.

School-board members in Philadelphia, meanwhile, began examining the issue this month, following a task-force report on teenage sexuality that included a condom-distribution plan as one of many policy options.3

But some predicted that other districts would be cautious about adopting policies as sweeping as New York’s.

“I think there is the feeling that ‘New York is different, and it doesn’t apply to us,”’ said Brenda Greene, the aids-education manager for the National School Boards Association.

“Actually handing out a prophylactic is pretty controversial,” she said. “In some communities, talking about prophylactics is controversial.”

The plan approved by the New York City board on Feb. 27 will allow students in each of the district’s 120 high schools to obtain condoms on a confidential basis from male and female staff volunteers according to a set schedule. Students are not required to be counseled or instructed about the use of condoms at the time they request them. Such information will be available on request. (See Education Week, March 6, 1991.

Students will, however, receive instruction on condom use as part of an as-yet-unfinished aids-prevention curriculum that will be approved by the board this year.

Each high school will work with a committee that includes educators, parents, and community members to develop a plan for distributing condoms on its grounds. Such plans in turn must be approved by Schools Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez, who proposed the revised aids curriculum and the condom-distribution policy last year.

Mr. Fernandez said he made his bold proposal in light of statistics that show the city leads the country in the number of young people with acquired immune deficiency syndrome. (See Education Week, Dec. 12, 1990.)

Lisa Bohen, a spokesman for the district, said officials expect about 30 to 35 schools to finish the planning process in time to begin distributing condoms next fall. Within a year to 18 months, she said, all the city’s high schools should be participating.

Ms. Bohen said the school system will ensure that all the staff volunteers are properly trained to counsel students and to answer questions.

She also said district officials were talking with a number of major manufacturers of condoms, as well as other corporations and foundations, to seek cash contributions or product do nations for the program. Officials estimate that each school will need about 500 condoms a month.

Currently, students at 17 city high schools who have their parents’ per mission can obtain prescriptions for contraceptives at school-based clinics, Ms. Bohen said. None of the clinics, she said, distributes condoms.

About 20 school-based clinics nationwide distribute contraceptives, according to the Center for Population Options, which follows adolescent reproductive issues. But no school district, officials of the center said, currently distributes contraceptives without parental permission.

A small district in Commerce City, Colo., does distribute condoms to students in its two high schools, using teacher volunteers. But parents there are allowed to exclude their children from the program.

Although the New York City plan, as adopted, does not require parental permission, several members of the school board have said they would support a parental “opt out” amendment.

A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 1991 edition of Education Week as Condom Plan for N.Y.C.'s Schools Prompts Debate Among