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Condoms, secrecy for Provincetown pupils

Parents, official criticize policy

By Jack Nicas
Globe Correspondent / June 24, 2010

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Students in Provincetown — from elementary school to high school — will be able to get free condoms at school under a recently approved policy that takes effect this fall. The rule also requires school officials to keep student requests secret, and ignore parents’ objections.

“The intent is to protect kids,’’ said School Superintendent Beth Singer, who wrote the policy that the Cape Cod town’s School Committee unanimously passed two weeks ago. “We know that sexual experimentation is not limited to an age, so how does one put an age on it?’’

“It’s about availability,’’ said committee chairman Peter Grosso. “We’re not handing ’em out like M&M’s.’’

The policy, which requires school nurses to supply condoms to any student who asks, drew criticism yesterday from some parents, a family-advocacy group, and even the town manager, who expressed alarm that children would be able to acquire condoms beginning next school year.

But Singer assured critics that, despite the strict wording of the policy, its practical application will be more flexible, and that not every child who requests a condom will necessarily get one. For example, if a student in the early elementary school grades requests a condom, the nurse will ask the student a series of questions and almost certainly deny them, she said.

“If that were to happen, we would deal with it in a professional and appropriate way,’’ she said. “I don’t anticipate that this policy is going to affect youngsters. It’s there for adolescents.’’

Several high schools in the state make condoms available to students. While complete data were unavailable yesterday, Provincetown’s policy to make them available with no age restriction, and declare parents’ objections irrelevant, seemed to set it apart.

Jeanmarie Kaeselau, 41, who has a fifth- and an eighth-grader in the school system, said she would be uncomfortable with her younger son coming home with school-issued condoms.

“That’s a little weird,’’ she said. “I’d rather have him come to me.’’

But Kaeselau will not have a say. The policy, first reported in the Provincetown Banner, keeps parents from knowing if their children receive condoms, and mandates that school officials can choose to supply them even if parents object.

Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, blasted the policy as an “absolute push to promote sexual promiscuity.’’

“This is the theater of the absurd to hand condoms to first-graders who don’t even know what their purpose possibly could be, who can’t even spell sex,’’ he said. “And it’s a gross violation of parents’ rights.’’

Town Manager Sharon Lynn said she would prefer a system that requires parental consent until children reach a certain age.

“I think the parents should be responsible for [their children], and know what their children are doing,’’ Lynn said in an interview.

But Michele Couture, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen, said that when it comes to sex, safety is paramount.

“I don’t know, you don’t want to take away a parent’s right to decide what’s right for their child,’’ she said. “But it’s unrealistic to think that a parent saying no to condoms means the child’s going to say no to sex. They’re still going to have sex; they’re just not going to have a condom.’’

The policy began this spring when the school district’s Wellness Committee, an independent board of residents, recommended making condoms available at school. The School Committee then enlisted Singer, the superintendent, to write a proposal.

At a public, televised meeting on June 8, the five-member School Committee voted 4 to 0 to approve Singer’s plan. (One member was absent.) “No one came to comment,’’ Singer said, noting the issue had been on the agenda for weeks.

Grosso said one member proposed limiting the policy to the high school, which serves seventh- to 12th-grade students, but he fought against it.

“I was the one who said, ‘Well, you never know,’ ’’ said the 64-year-old father whose two children graduated from Provincetown High School. “It’s very possible that a fifth- or sixth-grader would be getting involved in sexual activity.’’

Singer said she wanted the policy to apply to the Veterans Memorial Elementary School so that fifth- and sixth-graders could get condoms. There were 17 students in those grades this year, according to state data; there were 69 students in preschool through fourth grade at Veterans.

The policy was approved as the school system contends with a dramatic drop in enrollment — down from 500 students in 1980 to 152 this year. The School Committee recently announced that the high school will close in 2013. The school had 66 students this year; 36 are enrolled for this fall.

Yesterday, the town leaders were already speaking for and against the condom rule.

Lynn, the town manager, said she received angry calls and e-mails yesterday not only from local residents but from as far away as California.

“I do believe there should be an age limit,’’ she said. “I don’t know what that age limit should be, but I would think that something like at least early teenage years would be appropriate.’’

But Grasso said any student who wants a condom, preschoolers and up, should get one.

“As the grades get lower, the possibility gets lower,’’ he said, “but we’re not going to pick an age.’’

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

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