By Whitney Sewell, Program Research Intern
In June the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) voted unanimously to expand condom availability to all 32 Boston public high schools, up from the 19 schools currently served. The vote affirms a key part of the commission’s new wellness policy, which also stipulates that students who request condoms must also receive sexual health education and counseling. Parents or guardians continue to have the option to “opt-out” their teens (i.e. notify the district that their teens are not to receive condoms). The draft policy states:
“Condoms will be accessible from community health service partners, the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) or, when neither community health service partners nor BPHC staff are available, from appropriate school staff. Schools will adhere to Massachusetts state confidentiality laws. Boston Public Schools encourages communication and involvement with family regarding health services, and parents and legal guardians may exempt their children from receiving condoms by notifying the school when they complete the family information forms at the beginning of the school year.”
Despite the unanimous vote, the policy did not pass without some community opposition. Historically, condom availability faced fervent opposition often led by the city’s former Mayor Raymond Flynn. When condom availability in public high schools was first considered in 1991, Flynn perpetuated a widely-held opposition myth: “Distributing condoms in public schools actually could lead to an increase in the spread of AIDS.” Current opposition is led by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, which issued a statement that it is “very concerned [that] young people deserve far better from their educators and their community leaders than a misguided and unfortunate proposal to make condoms readily available.”
According to the SIECUS state profile of Massachusetts, reported condom usage (at most recent sexual intercourse) among sexually active Boston high school students in 2011 was 53% for females and 78% for males. This compares favorably with the national condom-use average of 54% for females and 67% for males.
Boston high school student and peer leader for the BPHC Christopher Levaud shared his rationale for supporting the expansion of condom availability: “I can’t believe how many of my friends tell me they are having sex and don’t use condoms…They are not even educated on the risks of having sex and possibly contracting an STD or becoming pregnant.” Fellow Boston student and peer leader Ciboney Cope speculated, “Many students are uncomfortable with going to a store and purchasing condoms and would prefer getting them free from school.”
According to Jill Carter, the executive director of Boston Public Schools’ health and wellness department:
“Students will get sexual health education in a class. Then, if they wanted access to the condoms, they would actually have one-on-one counseling with someone that’s trained…We recognize that if we want them to make these healthy choices we need to make sure that it’s not a barrier for them to actually get the condoms.”
Mandating sexual health education as a prerequisite for condom availability is a progressive step for Boston. Massachusetts state education law does not require public schools to provide sexuality education, although the state’s 1999 Comprehensive Health Curriculum Framework does establish sexual health education standards to guide local school districts that offer such instruction.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that as of 2006 (the most recent date for which CDC has reported data) only 5% of U.S. high schools made condoms available to their students. The Boston policy is scheduled to take effect at the start of the 2013-14 school year.
“Boston Public Schools Draft District Wellness Policy,” Boston Public Schools, June 19, 2013, accessed July 16, 2013, http://www.bostonpublicschools.org/files/2013-06-19_wellness_policy_final.pdf.
“Mayor Criticized for Opposing Condom Distribution in Schools,” Associated Press, November 11, 1991, accessed July 22, 2013, http://www.apnewsarchive.com/1991/Mayor-Criticized-for-Opposing-Condom-Distribution-in-Schools/id-1491042997a382532bd32081806cf959.
Jess Bidgood, “Board to Vote on Condoms in Boston Schools,” New York Times, June 18, 2013, accessed July 16, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/19/education/board-to-vote-on-condoms-in-boston-schools.html.
James Vaznis, “Boston Schools Might Offer Condoms,” Boston Globe, June 7, 2013, accessed July 22, 2013, http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2013/06/07/boston-weighs-providing-condoms-all-public-high-schools/CjG3fNP48M3Nc4k79cOB4H/story.html.
Bidgood, “Board to Vote…”