Kate Tuttle: Didja hear? A crazy school district in wacko-liberal Massachusetts (in "gay capital" Provincetown, no less!) is going to be handing out condoms to kids as young as kindergarten-age -- and parents can't opt their kids out! It's the end of the world! At least, that's how the cable news shows were reporting it this week.
Condemnation of condom-mania was all over the airwaves, in response to the decision made by P-town's school committee. Even Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, hardly a raving conservative, expressed his disapproval. Late Thursday, the news came that, after a phone call from Governor Patrick, P-town's school superintendent, Beth Singer, is now asking her team to reassess the policy.
I find this disappointing. As the mother of a teenager growing up in Massachusetts, the last thing I want is for political considerations -- including the fear of ridicule from professional pundits looking to score cheap points in a nonsensical culture war -- to threaten the ability of local school officials to provide students with the tools they need to protect themselves from pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.
Amidst all the outrage -- "First graders will be able to get condoms!" -- there's been a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding, along with the usual objections to any form of sex education or contraceptive/safe-sex counseling. Let's clear up the first part first: The main reasons the free-condom policy has no age minimum are logistical and logical.
Provincetown is a tiny place -- at least as far as its school kids are concerned. Primarily a gay-friendly and artsy summer beach town, it's full of tourists in the summertime, but its year-round population is just over 3,000. The high school is slated to close in the next few years; starting in the fall, high-school students will be blended in with kids from kindergarten to eighth grade in the same two buildings. Because health-related policies are typically building-specific, the only way to impose an age minimum on the condom distribution would be to write it into the policy -- a step that P-town's superintendent and her team were unwilling to make, since they know that kids are often having sex far younger than we would wish.
The part of the policy that nobody seems to have read before denouncing it states that any student asking for a free condom will need to go through a school nurse. Those people have built-in B.S. detectors -- there's no way a curious or silly first grader would be able to procure a free Trojan to use as a water balloon. Similarly, an early-bloomer fourth grader contemplating jumping into sexual activity too young would get a sympathetic, sane listener -- exactly what any parent would wish for. And what of an eighth grader who is seriously considering having sex for the first time? As a parent, I would hope that he or she would reconsider -- but barring that, damn straight I hope there's a condom involved.
One part of the proposal that has parents outraged is the fact that they can't opt out; they can't dictate that the schools refuse to help their children if they come seeking condoms. And you know what? That's exactly appropriate. Yes, parents are and always should be their children's first teachers and guides, and we all hope that our kids will come to us whenever they're about to make a big step. But kids don't always do that, and in many cases -- especially when parents are strict, rigid, moralistic -- they need to find other kind, empathetic adults who will listen to and help them.
To those who ask, incredulously, whether schools should also be able to dispense birth control pills without parental approval, I'd point out that condoms are an appliance, not a medication -- no hormones, no foul. Anyway, neither condoms nor birth control pills force kids to have sex, any more than seat belts in cars force drivers to get into wrecks.
The bottom line is, just as schools can't do anything to stop kids from having sex (sometimes earlier than anyone would hope), neither is there anything parents can do, really. In the end, this is a life choice a teenager will make on his or her own. Even if parents have done their job -- talking to their children about sex and sexuality; being clear about their own hopes and wishes and values -- after a certain point, it's truly out of our hands.
Parents who are realistic can admit that their children will likely begin having sex in high school (statistics say that most of us do), and those who are able to be open will already have talked to their kids about the need to use condoms. It's the kids whose parents haven't stepped up -- because of fear or denial or disapproval -- who will benefit most from the kind of policy P-town's schools are now being attacked for.