The Boston School Committee approved two significant policy changes Wednesday night, one of which will make condoms available in all high schools across the city and the other will beef up employee background checks.
The approval of condom distribution — a key feature in a new comprehensive health and wellness policy— marks a dramatic shift in practice for the city's public schools system.
Previously, only a limited number of high schools that have health centers could hand out condoms. Now, students will be able to receive them 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.
Students, however, will receive counseling about safe sex practices before obtaining the contraceptives, and parents will have the right to exempt their children.
City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, who testified during the meeting and then watched the historic vote, applauded the decision.
"I'm elated," said Pressley, who has been pushing for comprehensive sexual health education in all high schools and making condoms available to high school students. "It's a long time coming."
Five of the six school board members present approved the policy. Claudio Martinez abstained.
None of the School Committee members addressed condom availability before the vote.
The policy change had wide support from students, public health advocates, and educators, and generated little, if any, public opposition.
Barbara Huscher, a retired Boston public school health education director, donned a hat that looked like the tip of a condom after the vote and posed for pictures.
"I've been working on this for 15 years," she said. "They have the option to be safe now."
The new policy replaces one adopted in the early 1990s, as the AIDS crisis gripped the nation. It appeared to be a compromise — making condoms available in high schools with health centers — after repeated attempts through the years to make the contraceptives available in all high schools failed to win school board support.
The issue at that time was highly volatile with the Archdiocese of Boston, and Mayor Raymond L. Flynn strongly opposed the measure.
A newly elected Mayor Thomas M. Menino helped to get the compromise approved.
Several organizations voiced their support for the new broader policy after the vote Wednesday.
"Keeping students healthy is key to keeping them in school, and we know that teen parenthood continues to be a leading cause of school dropout in Massachusetts," said Marty Walz, president and chief executive officer of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts in a statement.
"The passage of this wellness policy represents an important step forward in efforts to address the high rates of sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy among the city's young adults."
Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, added in a statement, "The vote for comprehensive sex education and condom availability will give students the tools to make healthy decisions at a critical time in their lives. The good decisions youth make now are the good decisions they continue to make into and through adulthood."
Little opposition emerged Wednesday on the issue of tightening background checks on employees, which the School Committee passed unanimously.
The new policy will give the School Department greater discretion to consider the kinds of infractions that could disqualify someone from employment, including repeated run-ins with the law, even if those cases did not result in convictions.
Under the current policy, officials can deny employment only if a person was convicted of a crime specifically listed; they cannot disqualify individuals who settled cases without having a conviction appear on their record, even if they admitted to sufficient facts and were placed on probation.
In addition, on Wednesday, the School Committee also disclosed that it had decided in an executive session last month to pay John McDonough, the chief financial officer, an annual salary of $250,000 when he becomes interim superintendent this summer.
The salary is about $70,000 more than what McDonough currently makes.