By Shelby Sebens
PORTLAND, Ore., June 4 (Reuters) - An Oregon school district plans to offer condoms to students starting in sixth grade as part of an updated sex education policy aimed at decreasing teen pregnancy, sparking debate over whether 11-year-olds are too young for such a program.
The plan by the rural Gervais School District comes after a 2013 survey by nursing students found that 7 percent of district high school girls had experienced pregnancy and 42 percent of students reported "never" or "sometimes" using protection.
"Over the past few decades, teen pregnancy in our community has remained somewhat constant, but higher than the board felt comfortable with," Superintendent Rick Hensel said in a blog post dated Monday.
The district school board approved the sex education policy earlier this month for sixth through 12th graders in the tiny town north of Salem, and Hensel said administrators would hash out details this summer to be implemented in the fall.
The board decided to include middle school students because the middle and high schools are close in proximity and run by the same administration - and because middle school girls are getting pregnant too.
"Every few years, a middle school student either becomes pregnant or is associated with a pregnancy," he said. "The board felt that the curriculum should reach the students of the middle school."
But some question whether sixth graders, who are typically 11 or 12 years old, need condoms.
"I have to say that sixth grade to me seems incredibly young," said Amita Vyas, assistant Professor and Director of the Maternal and Child Health Program at George Washington University. "We really don't see high rates of sexual activity when we are looking at 13 and under."
But she said educating young students and keeping them engaged with teachers and parents is a useful way to decrease teen pregnancy.
Though the board voted unanimously, Hensel alluded that it was not easy for some members who cast votes "in some cases contrary to their individual beliefs."
He said abstinence remained the foundation of the curriculum and that students would be required to speak with a trained teacher, counselor, nurse or administrator before receiving condoms.
Though the curriculum is designed after a program for 13-18 years olds, University of Michigan professor of nursing Antonia Villarruel said that if younger students are having sex, it makes sense to include them.
"If you put it in that context, no, it's not too early to give condoms," she said. "The evidence clearly shows it doesn't encourage sexual behavior but actually helps to delay it." (Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Ken Wills)