By Paresh Dave
An Oregon school district plans to offer condoms to middle schoolers and high schoolers who specifically ask for them during conversation with counselors and administrators.
The availability has stirred concern since the tiny Gervais School District approved the plan as part of an update to its human sexuality policy last month. The district has about 550 students in grade 6 or above, and officials have expressed concern about the steady number of teen pregnancies each year.
The vast majority of the nation's public schools don't make condoms available to students despite pleas from medical groups that such arrangements would reduce transmission of disease and not increase rates of sexual activity.
In Gervais, just north of the state capital of Salem in western Oregon, the high school and middle school are essentially treated as the same entity, sharing the same administration and adjacent buildings. That proximity led the district to make condoms available across the board. The district said some school board members voted against their religious beliefs to approve the policy.
"Although several options for condom access were recommended (dispensers in restrooms, a bowl of condoms in the counselor's office), the board chose the most restrictive and most educationally sound manner of distribution," the district said on its website. "Students would be required to have a discussion with a designated and trained teacher, counselor, nurse or administrator before condoms are issued."
The new sexual health education policy came after a survey of students conducted by college students. The school board believed the results showed students weren't getting enough information about sex. With one market in town, students also didn't have easy access to condoms. Now, they'll have more access and more guidance, school officials said.
Superintendent Rick Hensel told the Salem Statesman Journal that nine students became pregnant this school year. The survey last spring by Oregon Health Sciences University found 42 percent of students were sexually active and that 29 babies were born to girls older than 15 in the district.
Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2011 that 34 percent of high school students recently had sex and that 400,000 high school-age girls became pregnant in 2009.
Sex education at Gervais will still focus on abstinence, using a curriculum that focuses on the pressures faced by children who are Latino. About two-thirds of Gervais students are Latino and one-third are white, according to Oregon Department of Education data.
Antonia Villarruel, a University of Michigan health promotion professor who developed the instruction material, said the curriculum stays silent on the issue of condom distribution. But students are taught how to properly use one.
"When kids decide to have sex, they should be able to take the precautions," she said.
Among the curriculum guidance specific to Latino men is that it can be considered macho to use a condom.
"We define machismo as an important value; it means protecting your family and being responsible for your family," she said. "Using a condom is protecting your family, and the curriculum provides a reason to be proud of that beautiful culture, which can be used to make healthy decisions."
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