THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Condoms old news in many schools

P-town policy is like those in other districts

By Jack Nicas
Globe Correspondent / June 28, 2010

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While Provincetown schools grapple with a controversial condom policy, which has drawn national attention and disapproval from the governor, more than two dozen other school districts across the state have been quietly making condoms available to students for years.

In some ways, the Provincetown policy, which technically makes condoms available to all students regardless of age, closely resembles those of several other local schools and in at least two instances, requires a stricter screening process.

In 1990, Cambridge Rindge & Latin School began distributing condoms through a school-based health center, making it the state’s first public school to dispense them.

A year later, Falmouth schools took a bold step and made the issue a hot topic.

“We were the first school in the state to put condom vending machines in bathrooms,’’ said Robert Antonucci, the former Falmouth superintendent. “It was very heated. . . . I can remember being chastised at Mass by a local priest.’’

A group of parents filed suit against the school district, but the state’s Supreme Judicial Court upheld Falmouth’s policy in 1995. Since then, it is not unusual to see free condoms in high schools across the state.

The state does not track data on school condom programs, but according to a Globe review, more than two dozen school districts make condoms available, including Bedford, Lincoln- Sudbury, Newton, and Revere. Eight of the 40 Boston high schools offer condoms to students with written parental consent.

To obtain a condom under the Provincetown policy, students must request one from the school nurse and then listen to a brief lecture on safe sex; younger students would most likely be denied if their motives seem suspect, school officials said.

But at Lexington High School, students can grab them freely from baskets in the guidance and nurse’s offices, no questions asked.

“We don’t track who takes them,’’ said Jill Gasperini, nurse leader at Lexington. “We don’t pay attention to it.’’

And in Falmouth, condoms cost 75 cents in the vending machines and are free from a basket in the nurse’s office. Nine hundred free prophylactics were handed out to Falmouth students this past school year, said the superintendent’s assistant.

When Falmouth introduced its policy, it set off a media maelstrom that quieted after the SJC decision.

Last week, the television trucks descended on Provincetown, the tiny tourist haven on the tip of Cape Cod. School officials disconnected their phones after news broke of their decision that technically enables preschoolers to get condoms upon request. And the rule, set to take effect this fall, does not honor parents’ objections.

After Governor Deval Patrick called the superintendent on Thursday, school officials softened their stance, saying the policy was a misunderstanding and would probably be adjusted to apply only to fifth-grade and above.

In Holyoke, those in sixth grade and above can get condoms at school under the same guidelines as Provincetown — a chat with the school nurse. But unlike Provincetown, parents can have their children opt out.

Superintendent Eduardo Carballo said the program, passed in 2004, has helped lower the rate of venereal disease among teens.

“It was very controversial initially,’’ Carballo said. But, he added, “I’ve been happy with it, the school board’s been happy with it, and parents have been happy with it.’’

Falmouth also makes condoms available to seventh- and eighth-graders, in a manner similar to Provincetown’s policy.

The 1995 court decision upheld Falmouth’s right to keep student requests secret and to bar parents from keeping their children from receiving condoms — two parts of Provincetown’s policy that have stirred criticism.

“Although exposure to condom vending machines and to the program itself may offend the moral and religious sensibilities of the plaintiffs, mere exposure to programs offered at school does not amount to unconstitutional interference with parental liberties,’’ the court said.

Antonucci, now the president of Fitchburg State College, said he still stands strongly behind making condoms available in schools, but he believes Provincetown has gone too far.

“You can talk about condoms with fifth- and sixth-graders, but you don’t need to make them available to them,’’ he said.

Jack Nicas can be reached at jnicas@globe.com.

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