Starting this fall, the public schools in Springfield, Massachusetts will be making condoms available to both high school and middle school students -- that means to kids as young as 12. I was asked to go on New England Cable News to give my opinion on it, so I did some researching and serious thinking about it.
I think it's the right thing to do.
I'm not happy that we need to make these kinds of decisions, but we do. There are some tough facts that the Springfield School Committee had to face -- like that Springfield has the fourth highest teen birth rate in the state, and that half of Springfield ninth graders report having had sexual intercourse.
It's not just Springfield. According to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), a survey of U.S. high school students done through the Centers for Disease Control, overall 31 percent of U.S. ninth graders report having had sexual intercourse. That's an average -- it's higher in some places and in some subgroups. By 12th grade, the number is up to 62 percent. And here's a scarier statistic: Six percent of kids nationwide report having had sex before age 13. That's also an average -- as with ninth graders, the number is higher in some places and groups.
Of all kids having sex, 61 percent report using condoms. That means a lot of kids are not protecting themselves against infection or pregnancy. This is really scary stuff.
Not my kid, you say. Well, maybe not. Hopefully not. But I bet that not all the parents of those six percent of under 13-year-olds or 31 percent of ninth graders or 62 percent of 12th graders know that their kids are having sex. And I bet, too, that lots of those parents in the dark are really good, loving parents who have talked with their children about sex. It's just true that parents can't always know everything about their child's life. Ask yourself: Did your parents know when you first had sex?
That doesn't mean that parents aren't central and crucial when it comes to teaching kids about sex. They absolutely are. They are the first and best teachers of children about sexuality -- they are the ones who really need to talk with them about the physical, emotional and moral aspects of it. They need to talk with them early (well before middle school) and often, giving them the information they can handle at each age, helping them understand the changes in their bodies and the feelings puberty brings and how they, like all of us, are sexual beings. They need to teach them how to be responsible, healthy and safe sexual beings. They need to talk with them about the situations they might find themselves in, and how best to handle them. But some parents are more comfortable doing this than others, and some kids listen more than others. And life has a way of taking very unexpected turns.
I don't think that making condoms available sends a mixed message. The messages that most matter are the ones that parents give. Making condoms available says: we understand that despite everything we say and teach you, it's possible that you may do something different. If you do, we don't want you to end up pregnant or sick.
The Springfield schools aren't planning on leaving condoms out in hallways. Students will have to request them through the school nurse or one of the school-based health clinics, and they will receive counseling (including about abstinence) and instructions on proper use of condoms. Not only that, parents can sign a form denying the school permission to give condoms to their child. It all sounds very responsible to me.
What should be most important to all parents is that their children be safe and well, with the best chance possible for a good future. We should be grateful for any help we can get.
Follow Claire McCarthy, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@drClaire