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At Boston public schools, condom wrappers raise ruckus

The Boston public school system, as it prepared to make condoms available to students at all its high schools last fall, received what seemed like the perfect donation from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health: 40,000 free condoms.

But now the system is pulling the donated contraceptives from its schools after some parents raised questions about whether the messages and images on the wrappers are appropriate for teenagers, even as they voiced support for the condom-distribution policy. The wrappers featured such messages as “One lucky lady,” “hump one,” and “tasty one,” which was accompanied by a picture of a shark preying on a small fish.

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One outraged mother took to Twitter Tuesday night, posting a picture of some of the condoms along with this request: “looking for BPS administrators to explain why this packaging is OK.” She also e-mailed the governor and the mayor.

“Right idea, wrong execution,” the mother, Stephanie Bode Ward, said in an interview Wednesday, blaming the state. “I so fully support condoms in the schools, and it was incredibly courageous for BPS to adopt the policy.”

Lee McGuire, a school system spokesman, said school officials do not know how many of the condoms were distributed, but stressed the remainder are being replaced.

“We understand why some people may have concerns about the design,” McGuire said in an e-mail. “This is why we have already taken steps to replace this supply with a donation from the Boston Public Health Commission. We have already begun to distribute these different condoms to schools so there is no interruption in our overall comprehensive sexual health education effort.”

The state Department of Public Health said in a statement Wednesday night that it “provided the condoms to support the Boston Public Schools in furthering our shared public health goals, following their approval of a condom availability program last year. We support BPS’s decision to replace these condoms with neutrally packaged condoms.”

‘Right idea, wrong execution.’

Stephanie Bode Ward, mother of a high school student, she blames the state, which supplied the condoms to the schools 
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The School Committee adopted the condom-distribution policy in June as part of a sweeping overhaul of its health and wellness programs. Under the policy, students at any high school can receive condoms from a designated adult after receiving counseling on safe-sex practices. Parents retain the right to exempt their children.

The policy replaced one from the early 1990s that only allowed students at a limited number of high schools with health centers to receive condoms, and the change generated little, if any, opposition.

McGuire said the school system was grateful for the free condoms from the state “because reducing teen pregnancy and stopping the spread of sexually transmitted diseases are of paramount importance.”

Concern over the condom wrappers started brewing a few weeks ago.

Helen Dajer, a nurse midwife and a former School Committee member, was chatting with the nurse at her son’s high school last month about a different issue and then decided to ask, because of her work in the health field, how the new condom policy was going.

The nurse, concerned about the wrappers, showed her the condoms, Dajer said. “I was horrified,” said Dajer, who supports distributing condoms but thought they would be in plain wrappers. “As a mother of three teenagers, there was no way I wanted my kids to be given condoms with those wrappers.”

Davin Wedel, president Global Protection Corp., the Boston-based company that made the condoms, said his company learned of the problem Wednesday and said that a third-party distributor working for the state provided the condoms. He said the company makes other designs that would be more appropriate for high school students.

“It’s a quick thing to fix, and we would love to be part of that by donating replacements,” Wedel added.

Parents said they are pleased school officials are replacing the offending condoms and that the program will continue.

“This is one small but significant snafu that I’m delighted they fixed,” Dajer said.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
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