Fernandez Unveils Plan To Distribute Condoms at Schools

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Citing concern about the spread of AIDS among adolescents in New York City, Schools Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez last week proposed that condoms be distributed on request to students in all of the city's high schools.

If the plan is approved, experts said, the district would likely be the first in the country to distribute condoms to students on an unrestricted basis, without parental consent.

The proposal, which was immediately criticized by some school-board members and religious leaders, is part of a program to boost anti-AIDS efforts in the schools that Mr. Fernandez presented to the board.

Under the plan, students in each of the city's 122 high schools would be able to get condoms from male and female staff volunteers according to a set schedule. Students would receive no counseling or instruction at the time they requested a condom, and their request would remain confidential.

They would, however, receive instruction on how to use a condom in an as-yet-unfinished AIDS-prevention curriculum that will be reviewed by the board next year.

Currently, the system's students who want to obtain contraceptives must get parental consent to go to one of 17 school-based health clinics, which can prescribe, but cannot distribute, contraceptives.

"Condoms, alone, will not solve the HIV/AIDS crisis," Mr. Fernandez wrote in a memo to the board about his proposal to expand programs to prevent AIDS and the Human Immunodeficiency Virus that causes it.

"They are not a panacea; they represent one small step, but in combination with a more aggressive educational effort," he argued, "I believe we can make progress in preventing the further spread of HIV infection among our young people."

"This is a major social experiment without, at this point, much thought about its implementation," responded Michael Petrides, a board member from Staten Island who opposes any distribution of condoms in schools. "I don't think it's the role of schools."

Mr. Fernandez wrote that he was prompted to make his bold proposal in light of statistics that show that the city, with more than 110 cases of adolescent AIDS, leads the country in the number of young people with the disease. Other research, he said, shows that city teenagers are engaging in sexual behavior that puts them at risk of being exposed to HIV.

In addition to liberalizing the district's policy on condoms, the chancellor's proposal calls for reviewing and updating the AIDS curriculum and requiring AIDS education for students in grades K-6. Although the high-school curriculum will include information about the proper use of a condom, it will also stress sexual abstinence as the only sure way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancy, the memo said.

Similar concerns about adolescent AIDS and pregnancies have prompted several other recent--and unsuccessful--efforts to provide students with unlimited access to condoms in schools. This fall, for example, the school board in Talbot County, Md., voted down a proposal similar to the one being considered in New York City.

In Mill Valley, Calif., meanwhile, a plan developed last spring to distribute condoms without parental consent through the nurse's office at Tamalpais High School has been stalled, said Yvonne Thurmond, the school nurse.

Robin K. Lewis, the communications director for the Center for Population Options, said that her group, which monitors adolescent reproductive issues, is not aware of other districts that offer condoms or other contraceptives without parental consent. About 20 school-based clinics nationwide dispense contraceptives, she said.

Although only two of the New York City Board of Education's seven members indicated at the meeting last week that they would oppose the distribution of condoms in schools under any circumstances, others indicated that they might approve a program that requires counseling and parental consent.

Members said there will likely be a public hearing on the proposal, with a final vote early next year.

Gwendolyn C. Baker, the board's president, said in an interview last week that she wants health professionals to have greater involvement in training the staff members who would distribute the condoms.

"You just don't hand [students] a condom," she said. "This is not a drugstore."

At the meeting, Mr. Fernandez responded to such concerns. "We're not going to put a student in a situation where they have to go get counseling in order to get a condom," he said. "That takes the heart out of the plan."

Stronger opposition to the proposal was voiced by the Coalition of Concerned Clergy, a group created earlier this fall by some Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, and Orthodox Jewish clergy when Mr. Fernandez first said he was interested in distributing condoms in school.

In a letter sent to every secondary-school principal late last month, it asked school officials to "raise your voice" against a program that would "be seen by the children entrusted to your care as a symbol of the school system's ethical despair."

Janet Atwell, president of the United Parents Association, said her group favors making condoms available to high-school students on request, even without parental permission. But they should only be available, she said, in the context of a comprehensive program that stresses abstinence and includes counseling and information about condom use.

"How many kids are going to take consent slips home and say, 'Mom, Dad, can I get condoms?"' she said.

Vol. 10, Issue 15, Page 5

Published in Print: December 12, 1990, as Fernandez Unveils Plan To Distribute Condoms at Schools
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