The Roman Catholic bishop of Springfield protested yesterday the Holyoke School Committee's recent decision to make condoms available to students in grades 6-12, arguing that the school system is ''an endorser and an enabler of early adolescent sex."
''I am profoundly disappointed and disturbed," Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell said in a statement, contending that school officials are reducing sex to ''meaningless self-gratification."
''This decision is, in effect, a millstone around the necks of parents," he said.
Some members of the School Committee, which approved the policy several weeks ago, said they had to act because of the city's high teenage birth rate and high incidence of AIDS. It's unclear how many school systems across the state make condoms available, because the state Education Department doesn't track the policy, a department spokeswoman said. At least one school system, Cambridge, makes condoms available in school health clinics, according to the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.
Holyoke's program will begin as a pilot in the high school in several weeks and will extend to grades 6-8 if it's deemed successful, said Michael J. Moriarty, vice chairman of the School Committee. Before students receive condoms, he added, they will have to speak to a nurse, who will discuss pregnancy, AIDS, abstinence, and how condoms are not 100 percent effective. The school system will send a letter to all parents about the policy and include a form that they can return to prevent their children from getting condoms. .
''It just doesn't seem appropriate to do nothing," Moriarty said. ''Getting students who are thinking of being sexually active involved in a conversation with medical professionals is a reasonable trade-off."
The School Committee approved the policy at the recommendation of an advisory council helping the school system revamp its health programs, School Committee members said. In 2002, Holyoke's teen birth rate was 82 per 1,000, the highest in the state, according to the state Department of Public Health. The state rate was 23 per 1,000.
School health officials said the number of teenage births is about the same today as it was two years ago. In September, the high school had 29 students pregnant, and the middle school had four, and one in sixth grade. They added that the city now ranks second in the state among communities with AIDS cases.
''We had to do something to combat what we were seeing," said Dr. Robert Abrams, a school physician and interim director of health education for Holyoke schools.
Some School Committee members, however, disagree with the new policy.
''It gives the wrong message to our children and our parents," said William Collamore, a member of the committee for the past 25 years. ''I'm in favor of sex education, but we don't have to give them condoms."
Other committee members, including Moriarty, agree with the general policy, but voted to limit the distribution to the high school.
''I think the younger the student, the more concerned the parents become," Moriarty said.
Many parents have mixed feelings. Linda Fitzell said she hopes her son, Dylan, 17, a senior, and her daughter Molly, 14, a freshman, would have no use for them.
''I'm not in favor of my kids having sex," said Fitzell, a nurse. ''But I know a lot of kids don't listen to what their parents say, so, in that case, I want to make sure they have protection."