The second largest public school system in Massachusetts is going to make condoms available to students as young as 12 beginning this fall. The school committee in Springfield, Thursday night, approved a condom availability policy that proponents say will become part of a comprehensive effort to combat one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the state. WAMC's Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill reports.
Condoms will be made available to students who request it through school nurses or health centers in Springfield's middle schools and high schools. The students will also receive counseling, that is to include a discussion on abstinence, as well as instruction on the proper use and storage of condoms. A so-called opt out provision lets parents sign a form denying the schools permission to provide condoms to their children.
Helen Caulton-Harris, the director of the Department of Health and Human Services for the city of Springfield said the condom availability program is sorely needed because Springfield has the fourth highest teen birth rate in the state.
Caulton-Harris said 24 percent of girls who get pregnant drop out of school, and 46 percent of the children of teen mothers without a high school diploma live in poverty.
Another advocate for condom availability in the schools, Dr. Sarah Perez McAdoo, a physician who heads a health advocacy organization called YEAH, which stands for Youth Empowerment Adolescent Health Network, said surveys have found half of Springfield’s ninth graders report having sexual intercourse.
The issue was the most contentious taken up by the local school committee in years. It was approved by the narrowest of margins, a four to three vote. Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, who is the school committee chairman, framed the debate as being about the city's economic well being and the impact on public safety. He said he was confident the policy is based on research and had been thoroughly vetted by health and education experts.
School committee member Peter Murphy called free condoms in school, bad public policy.
School committee members said they had received numerous phone calls and emails from people objecting to providing condoms to children as young as 12. The bishop of the Springfield Roman Catholic Diocese wrote a letter against the condom program which was read at masses.
Christie Torres, a parent with a 12 year old son, and a 14 year old daughter, was thrilled after the school committee vote.
But Mathew Ferri, father of two fifth graders had urged the school committee to be guided by what he called "moral restraint".
The public schools in Holyoke have made condoms available to students for seven years. Although the most recent statistics, from 2009, show Holyoke with the highest teen birth rate among cities in the state, a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health last fall, credited condom availability in Holyoke High School with lowering the rates of sexually transmitted diseases in teenage males.
Holyoke's Mayor Alex Morse said the condom policy has been a success.
Neither the Massachusetts Department of Secondary Education nor the Massachusetts Department of Public Health maintain a record of the school districts with condom availability programs. A spokesman for the Department of Public Health said he knows of roughly two dozen schools with such policies.
The state health department supplied free condoms to five public schools last year at a total cost of $417.