The Boston School Committee is considering a policy change that would make condoms available to high school students across the city to prevent teenage pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted infections.
The move would mark a dramatic shift in philosophy for the city’s public school system, where only a limited number of high schools that have health centers can hand out condoms.
Under the proposed policy, students would be able to receive condoms at any of the approximately three dozen high schools either from a community health service partner, the Boston Public Health Commission, or from appropriate school staff.
The condoms would come with a caveat: Students must receive counseling about safe sex practices before receiving the contraceptives, a stipulation in place at high schools that currently dispense them.
“We are not talking about bowls of condoms,” said Jill Carter, the School Department’s executive director of health and wellness. “We want to make condoms available with education and support, and we want them available equitably across the district and for students to feel comfortable that they can go to someone they trust.”
Parents, however, would have the right to exempt their children, just as they can from sexual health education courses.
Making condoms more widely available is part of a comprehensive health and wellness policy that was presented to the School Committee Wednesday night that covers an array of topics such as nutrition, bullying prevention, and sexual health education in elementary, middle, and high schools.
The policy also calls for weekly physical education classes for elementary and middle school students, and at least one semester of physical education for each year of high school.
No one on the seven-member School Committee raised objections to the condom provision or other aspects of the wellness policy during the meeting, a sign that approval could come later this month when the committee is expected to take a vote.
In an interview Friday, chairman Michael O’Neill said that as a matter of policy he was hesitant about predicting how members would vote. But he added, “Many members spoke positively about the comprehensiveness of the policy and acknowledged the reality our students face.”
Across the state, public high schools remain divided about giving out condoms, more than two decades after the practice gained popularity as the unfolding AIDS crisis gripped the nation. Many high schools do not offer them at all, some will give them out only with counseling, while others simply leave them in baskets where students can take them, no questions asked.
In Boston, 19 high schools with health centers have been able to give out condoms since the School Committee passed the original policy in 1994.
That policy represented a watershed moment for Boston. Mayor Thomas M. Menino, concerned about fast-growing HIV infection rates among teenagers, pushed for the policy during his first year in office after earlier efforts stalled repeatedly under staunch opposition from former Mayor Raymond Flynn, the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and other groups.
But in recent years, many students have argued that the policy is out of date. In fall 2010, youths from the Hyde Square Task Force in Jamaica Plain launched an aggressive campaign to persuade school officials to offer free condoms in all high schools, and to increase the rigor and availability of sexual health education courses, which they said had been dropped from several schools because of budget cuts or MCAS prep.
The group had strong allies in its campaign: Claudio Martinez, a School Committee member, runs the organization, and Councilor Ayanna Pressley, concerned about teenage pregnancy, made the effort one of her top priorities.
At Wednesday’s School Committee meeting, more than 20 youths, city officials, and other supporters delivered impassioned testimony in favor of letting students receive condoms at school, especially from a trusted adult who could share information on safe sexual practices. They also urged the School Committee to make sure all high schools follow through on a current requirement of providing comprehensive sexual health education.
“I can’t believe how many of my friends tell me they are having sex and don’t use condoms,” said Christopher Lavaud, who attends the Jeremiah Burke High School in Dorchester and is a peer leader at the Boston Public Health Commission. “They are not even educated on the risks of having sex and possibly contracting an STD or becoming pregnant.”
“Many students are uncomfortable with going to a store and purchasing condoms and would prefer getting them free from school,” said Ciboney Cope, who attends the Community Academy of Science and Health in Dorchester and also is a peer leader at the health commission. “Protecting students should be our top priority.”
No one spoke in opposition to the change.
The proposed policy is being debated as city public health officials remain concerned about teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, and rates that vary considerably among teens of different ethnic and racial backgrounds.
Of particular concern has been chlamydia, a disease that can cause infertility in women. In 2012, 1,249 cases were reported among 15- to 19-year-olds in Boston, slightly lower than the 1,282 cases among that group in 2008.
“Condom availability is key,” in reducing rates, said Huy Nguyen, medical director at the Boston Public Health Commission.