COMMON SENSE AND CONDOM SENSE seldom accompany each other these days. The mere mention of condom education is enough to raise moral, political, and religious issues guaranteed to get people emotionally charged up and vocal.
Meanwhile, statistics leave little doubt that American teenagers are sexually active and at risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS. But, as many teachers know all too well, death seems so remote to most young people that even the threat of AIDS is not strong enough to deter them from having sex.
What, then, are classroom teachers to do as they try to wrestle with the sensitive issues involved with condom education? Here, gleaned from my experiences in training some 30,000 educators nationwide, are seven pieces of advice for those considering condom education. These are suggestions not from the "experts,'' but from teachers actually teaching about condoms and their use.
Schools can't do it alone. Involve the community, especially the parents. National surveys show that a large majority of parents want condom education taught in schools as part of AIDS education. But if the school teaches one message and the community another, condom education won't be effective. Successful programs start with community meetings that enlist the views and support of a wide range of people outside the school, including community leaders and medical experts.
Don't teach condom education, per se. Successful programs incorporate condom education into a sound educational framework, such as a comprehensive K-12 health-education curriculum. This approach helps clarify the condom issues and allay fears.
"Just say no'' or "Just say know''--use ageappropriate prevention messages. Prevention messages must be clear, direct, and in a language students can understand. Many schools develop programs with messages that reflect several themes--from sexual abstinence to condom education--which are adjusted for different grade levels. Many schools start in elementary school with a "Just say no'' to drugs and sex program. Somewhere around grade 7 or 8 (and sometimes as early as grade 4 or as late as grade 12), schools move the message to "Just say know,'' and condom education is increasingly emphasized at each grade level.
What many schools do can be described simply as the ABCs of sex education: Abstinence, Be monogamous, and Condoms. Monogamy is taught as refraining from sexual activity until as adults you are ready to establish a mutually faithful relationship. But, since lots of high school students are already sexually active, many schools teach about condoms with the message that they reduce, but do not eliminate, the risk of disease or pregnancy.
Facts alone, however, are not enough. Students need to be taught life skills, so programs should stress behavioral strategies to empower students to avoid risky sexual behaviors.
Condom education and instruction. There is a difference between condom education and condom instruction. "Here is a condom, use it,'' is not enough. You need condom instruction that at a minimum addresses these areas: where to obtain condoms, the need to use a latex condom labeled for disease prevention, how to use it, and the need to use it from start to finish for any type of sexual contact.
Before the C word, always the A word. Abstinence should always preface any condom-education message. If for no other reason, this should be done to let students know that everybody is not "doing it.'' In fact, most students in grades 7-12 are not sexually active, and almost all experts suggest that abstinence be encouraged.
No surprises. Do not teach something that administrators, parents, and the school board do not know about. Parents should be notified and, indeed, involved in the program's development. Parents should have the right to withdraw their students from condom education, but they should be notified if they do of their responsibility to teach this potentially lifesaving information to their children.
Don't delay. Regardless of what they are taught, many high school students are going to have sexual experiences before they graduate. They need to know now the information and skills that can save their lives.