Philly schools installing free condom dispensers over Christmas break... -
Coming over the holiday break to about a third of Philadelphia high schools: clear plastic dispensers chock-full of free condoms.
The dispensers will be placed in the 22 high schools whose students had the highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases, and condoms will be available to any student - so long as their parents did not sign a form opting them out of the program.
It's a pilot designed to address "an epidemic of sexually transmitted disease in adolescents in Philadelphia," said Donald F. Schwarz, the deputy mayor for health and opportunity. Since April 2011, the city has given away about four million condoms, and now, STD rates are falling.
But, Schwarz pointed out, 25 percent of new HIV infections in Philadelphia are teens, and that's a major worry.
Some city high schools - the dozen that have "health resource centers" - already dispense free condoms. And the Health Department also provides them at city high schools when they go in to test teens for STDs, as they do every year voluntarily with a parent's consent.
The pilot is the next logical step, Schwarz said.
"I support the policy strongly," said Mayor Nutter. "This is a serious public health matter."
Peg Devine, school nurse at Lincoln High - which is not a participant in the pilot program - said she supported making condoms available to sexually active students. But she worries about the ability of already-stretched nurses to juggle one more task.
Two of the schools in the pilot - Dobbins and High School of the Future - do not have full-time nurses.
In an e-mail to nurses, Philadelphia School District officials said that the dispensers would be installed "just inside the doorway near the entrance to your office" and that nurses were not to be charged with managing access.
"Opt-out letters are to be maintained by the school office," Assistant Superintendent Dennis W. Creedon wrote. "Students are to honor the wishes of their parents. If a student disrespects their guardian's directive, that is an issue of the home."
Still, Devine said, "I just can't imagine the parents of a 14-year-old being happy with this."
Nutter, himself the parent of a Philadelphia School District high schooler, said it was a necessary move.
"The reality is: Many of our teenagers, regardless of what adults think, are engaged in sexual activities," the mayor said. "Discussion about whether or not they should be sexually active is an appropriate discussion, but if they are, then we need to make sure they're engaged in safe sexual practices."
Or, as Schwarz said, "if a teenager wants to use a condom, they should have access to a condom."
Yes, it has occurred to officials that teenagers with access to free condoms might use them in a manner for which they were not intended.
"We don't want kids to either not use them - have the dispensers and no one touches them - or to have hundreds of condoms taken and used inappropriately, for water balloons or something like that," Schwarz said. "But they'll be supervised."
Karen Lynch, the district's chief of student services, said that when the city Health Department approached Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. soon after his arrival in Philadelphia, it was an easy decision to sign off on the condom dispensers.
"It's always a good idea to partner when it's in the best interest of children," said Lynch.
Schwarz said there would be no campaign to make teens aware of the availability of condoms.
"We're going to allow word of mouth and the Internet and social media to start this off," Schwarz said. "We don't want to make kids uncomfortable in any way, but we think it's an important intervention. We have a good track record here, and we're hoping to build on that, in a measured way."
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