Kid Condoms: Provincetown Likely to Limit to 5th Grade and Up

Cape Cod town responds to Gov. Deval Patrick's criticisms.

June 25, 2010 -- A Massachusetts school district is going ahead with plans to give condoms to students even without their parents' consent, but because of an outcry from Gov. Deval Patrick and others the district will consider excluding students in grades one through four.

The Provincetown School District -- the smallest in the state of Massachusetts -- will take a "relook" at the sex education policy that created a firestorm this week, according to School Superintendent Beth Singer.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, intervened Thursday in a fracas over giving condoms to Cape Cod elementary students as young as first grade.

On June 10, the the seaside resort town voted unanimously for a sex education policy allowing all children -- elementary and high school students -- to seek out a counselor and obtain condoms without parental permission.

On Thursday, the governor called Singer to weigh in, saying sex education programs should be "age appropriate" and that "parents ought to be involved."

Singer, who wrote the policy, agreed to take the governor's advice and review the matter with the board.

She told that the policy had been "misinterpreted and misunderstood" as reporters descended on the small community Thursday, asking why it had authorized condoms for first graders.

Some locals called the new policy "ridiculous and absurd," and "disgusting."

"I think this should be a parent's decision," said Charlie Hanson.

"I think it is going a little too far," said Constance Black.

School officials said they believe in abstinence, and that the policy was intended to encourage students who are having sex to protect themselves and their partners.

"We were never giving condoms to elementary school children," said Singer. "It's for sexually active people, and we don't see that as relevant to elementary school."

"You turn on the television and 24/7, there is sex," she said. "And it is possible to have a young teenager in the sixth grade. So the school committee didn't want to eliminate anyone to having access for whom it was relevant."

According to 2006 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 7 percent of teens who reported they'd had sex said they had it for the first time before the age of 13.

Never Too Young for Sex Education

Dr. Eugene Beresin, a professor at Harvard University and director of training in child and adolescent psychiatry at Massachusetts General and McLean hospitals in Boston, said he was in favor of policies aimed at younger children.

"If kids are taught and have access to counseling, there's a better chance of abstinence being maintained and the risk of STDs is diminished," he said.

But, he said, condom distribution should not be the "flagship" of sex education.

"Let's face it," he said. "You can't stop kids from having sex if they want to. It would be great if they hold off, but we can't stop it. What we can do is improve responsibility. So while we have to be thoughtful about randomly distributing condoms in the first grades, sex behavior and its consequences are part of the lives of young teens through young adulthood."

As for parental permission, Beresin said, "schools and families together" need to be educating children about responsible sexual behavior.

"The real issue is when sex education should begin, and whether sex education promotes promiscuous behavior or not," he said. "There is no evidence that I know of that educating children about safe sex encourages sexual behavior.

"If you told kids about the risks of suicide, it doesn't promote suicide," he said.

Provincetown's elementary school -- which has 85 students -- serves children in pre-K to sixth grade but will soon admit children as young as 15 months.

"Surprise, we are not giving them condoms," said Singer, who said the backlash "is not over yet."

After stories headlined "Condoms for Kids" hit the Internet, readers reacted: "Welcome to the socialist USA where the government knows best."

"Most of the firestorm is outside our town," said Singer. "I have suggested that if this were Hoboken [New Jersey], people wouldn't have reacted this way. Provincetown is a certain kind of town."

Provincetown, with a summer population that can swell to 100,000 on the Fourth of July, is the nation's self-proclaimed oldest art colony and former stage to such playwrights as Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams.

It prides itself on being the first landing for the Mayflower, where Pilgrims penned the "compact" that would become the U.S. Constitution.

Provincetown has also been named the nation's "best gay resort town" and a "No. 1 destination" for same-sex weddings, which take place mainly during the summer when out-of-towners descend on the pristine beaches and rental homes.

This progressive community -- influenced by early Americans and later by generations of Portuguese fisherman -- is accustomed to differing opinions, according to Bob Sanborn, director of the Provincetown Tourist Board.

Provincetown: Home to Families, Fishermen and Gays

"Because of our tradition and freedom over many years with artists, writers and bohemians, and later the LGBT [esbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community started flocking to town, [the town] is known for its being rich and diverse," he said . "Everyone gets along and is always very accepting."

Sanborn said he likes the way the condom policy "really focuses on education."

"There is a high awareness factor and safe sex is valued here," he said.

And some Provincetown residents are baffled over why they are getting all this attention for what they see as a comprehensive sex education program.

"I can't believe this is newsworthy," said Pat Patrick, owner of Marine Specialties and father of an 8-year-old. "I honestly am surprised it's an issue."

Patrick, who is not related to the governor, said most third graders would not even know enough to ask for a condom.

"If they do know enough to ask, maybe they should be talking to a counselor," he said.

His wife, Shannon Patrick, sits on the school board and questioned whether the policy went far enough.

"I don't like that students can't be discreet about this," she told the Provincetown Banner. "They have to go and ask for it. I'd rather them not have the conversation [with counselors] and have the condom than not have the condom."

Dr. Ari Brown, an Austin, Texas, pediatrician, said she is not surprised some parents are "up in arms" that giving condoms will encourage sexual activity.

"I disagree," said Brown, author of the parenting book "Expecting 411." "It will encourage safer sexual activity. I don't think the condoms will be offered up with crayons or construction paper on the school supplies list.

"Some kids are going to have sex," she said. "We'd all like them to wait until they are mature, responsible, and in a monogamous and mutually loving relationship - -and the best we can do is to educate our kids in our own homes to make that a reality."

As for Singer, who wrote Provincetown's policy, she said she has "learned a lot" from what many locals say is a tempest in a teapot.

"It gave us an opportunity to relook at the policy with the eyes of a stranger and perhaps, as some in the community have suggested, clean it up," she said.

Singer said the board intends to make it clear that advice given by counselors will be "age appropriate" and "inclusive of families."

But the policy will stand, she said.

"We weren't expecting this, but it has given us the opportunity to tell what the real policy is," said Singer.

"A student has to initiate this, seek out a nurse or social worker who is professionally trained, to have a conversation in order to get a condom," said Singer. "It can be a teaching opportunity. You can go to a drugstore and buy a condom and not have that conversation."