Globe Editorial

In Provincetown, condom furor leads to sensible compromise

June 26, 2010

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THE PROVINCETOWN school system’s decision to make condoms available to all of its students, regardless of age, triggered a wave of criticism this week, including a slap on the wrist from Governor Patrick. The criticism was warranted, and the school system has responded with a more measured — and more sensible — approach. The board is now revising the policy so that only students in grades 5 to 12 will have access to condoms through a school nurse on a case-by-case basis, and parents will have the right to exempt their children from the program.

Allowing parents to opt their children out of sexual education curricula has been the norm in Massachusetts for over a decade, and it is an elegant solution to a touchy subject. Under this policy, if parents don’t want their children to be a part of the school’s sexual health initiative, they aren’t. And if a parent does approve of the program, or simply doesn’t have a strong opinion, students are provided information and age-appropriate materials.

Provincetown’s original policy was based on three stark facts: Some young people become sexually active early on, most of them are hesitant to discuss sex with their families, and providing access to condoms is an effective way to prevent pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Yet schools don’t operate in a vacuum, and parents overwhelmingly want to play a role in their children’s decision-making. Where officials saw a well-grounded policy, critics saw a school system bent on going behind parents’ backs.

Though a parental opt-out provision does run the risk of keeping contraceptives from some students who might benefit from them, it also ensures that sound information about sexual health is available to the greatest number of students without offending any one family’s moral code. And in practice, only a small number of parents end up opting their children out of the programs.

Most importantly, this process invites parents to be a part of the conversation instead of forcing them to accept a system-approved sex-ed policy. That’s exactly the type of interaction schools should be fostering among parents, students, and trained health professionals when it comes to controversial yet essential issues like sexual health. The Provincetown case proves that such a back-and-forth can ultimately bring about the most effective solution.

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