By Greg Tartaglione, SIECUS Research Intern
Just 30 miles south of Portland, Oregon’s Gervais School District has come under fire from advocates of abstinence-only-until-marriage education for its plan to make condoms available to students in 6th grade and up starting in fall of 2014. The local school board came to a unanimous vote favoring condom availability after nine local girls – one of whom was in 7th grade – became pregnant within the last year.
The program will require that any student seeking condoms first reach out to select teachers who are qualified to give out accurate information about sexual health and contraceptive use. Gervais Principal Mike Solem remarked,“School is still school and I think we should keep that component in the distribution of condoms.”
Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association called the plan “a perfectly terrible idea." As he told LifeSiteNews, "condom distribution will simply promote irresponsible sexual activity, which will lead to an increase in unwanted pregnancies and a spike in STDs," insisting that condoms do not prevent infection with HPV for example.
While students in Oregon compare favorably to their peers nationally on sexual health measures, Gervais has been an outlier and of special interest to researchers. In 2013, nurses from the Oregon Health & Science University investigated the district’s high pregnancy rate and noted the limited availability of contraceptives to teens. Forty percent of district teens reported having had sexual intercourse; of those, nearly 1 in 3 had unprotected sexual intercourse at least once. The study noted that there is only one local market in the small town where condoms can be purchased.
Valerie Huber, CEO of the National Abstinence Education Association, argued that in the Gervais School District "the majority of teens are not having sex. This school ignores this fact and instead normalizes risky behavior as it exchanges 'risk avoidance' for the still-risky 'risk reduction' message."
Though opponents of the new program are worried that parents are being left out of their children’s choices, the school board defended their decision based on the findings of a student survey: 83% of Gervais students who were surveyed said that they would be unlikely to discuss contraception with their parents.
School board member and local mother Molly McCargar emphasized that “there are no fish bowls or vending machines kids can just grab [condoms from] and go… They will be talked with before walking out with them in hand. Distribution is not an accurate description; access under guidance is what should be stressed.”
Despite the ongoing debate about whether parents have the right to be notified when their child talks to one of the trained teachers, most local parents have voiced their support for the program."It is great for parents. I'm a parent of four girls. The conversations have started and they will continue -- unfortunately not all of our kids have that support at home," McCargar told CNN affiliate KOIN.
Reminding Gervais School District parents that their responsibilities will not end with the advent of condom availability, one local news editorial concluded:
“Clearly, as a parent, you want to be the one who discusses sexuality and contraceptives with your child. The problem is that parents don’t seem to be doing that… The decision to have sex is ultimately up to the teen. The parent’s purview can only go so far… If you as a parent are not happy with the board’s decision, then why not have a discussion with your teen about the issue and what is expected of him or her?”
 Lindsay Keefer, “School board defends providing students with condoms,” Woodburn Independent, June 4, 2014, accessed June 17, 2014 at http://www.pamplinmedia.com/wbi/152-news/223003-84645-school-board-defends-providing-students-with-condoms.
 Dustin Siggins, “School district votes to allow teachers to give condoms to students without parental consent,”LifeSiteNews.com, Jun 4, 2014, accessed June 17, 2014 at http://www.lifesitenews.com/news/school-district-votes-to-allow-teachers-to-give-condoms-to-students-without.
 Martha Kempner, “Oregon School District to Distribute Condoms to Middle and High School Students,” RH Reality Check, June 2, 2014, accessed June 17, 2014 at http://rhrealitycheck.org/article/2014/06/02/oregon-school-district-distribute-condoms-middle-high-school-students/.
 Keefer, “School board defends…”
 “Condoms to be given to sixth-graders in Gervais,” KOIN 6 News, May 28, 2014, accessed June 17, 2014 at http://koin.com/2014/05/28/condoms-to-be-given-to-sixth-graders-in-gervais/.
 “GSB justified in its decision,” Woodburn Independent, June 4, 2014, accessed June 17, 2014 at http://www.pamplinmedia.com/wbi/153-opinion/222899-84445-gsb-justified-in-its-decision.