June 30, 2010 -- The superintendent of a Massachusetts school district is apologizing to parents for what she calls a misunderstanding over a sex education policy that as written, would have applied to both high school students and first-graders.
Provincetown Superintendent Beth Singer said in the letter e-mailed Tuesday that the district would clarify that elementary school-age students couldn't get condoms if they requested them from the school nurse.
Singer said it became necessary to revise the policy's wording after it was "so badly understood and misrepresented by the media," according to the Cape Cod Times.
"It is especially troublesome to me and to our school community that this is likely to have been your introduction to the policy," Singer wrote in the e-mail, as reported in the Cape Cod Times.
In 1991, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education passed its first policy on condom availability as part its previous policy on AIDS/HIV prevention education.
It recommended that "every school committee, in consultation with superintendents, administrators, faculty, parents and students consider making condoms available in their secondary schools."
Provinceton -- the smallest district in the state -- was at the center of a firestorm after its school board voted unanimously on June 8 to give condoms to students even without their parents' consent. But because of an outcry from Gov. Deval Patrick and others the district said would consider excluding students in grades one through four.
Singer, who wrote the condom policy, agreed to take the governor's advice to make it "age appropriate" and review the matter with the board.
She told ABCNews.com 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," Singer told ABCNews.com. "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.
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.
Never Too Young for Sex Education
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 were baffled over why they were 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, 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."