Condoms for Kids: Tempest Brews in Artsy Provincetown, Massachusetts

Provincetown, Mass. debates birth control issue.

June 24, 2010, 4:37 PM

June 24, 2010 -- In the small Massachusetts town where the Mayflower first landed and puritanical Pilgrims penned the "compact" that would evolve into the U.S. Constitution, a tempest is brewing -- over condoms in the classroom.

Just this week, the school board of Provincetown, a seaside resort that sits on the tip of Cape Cod, voted unanimously for a sex education policy allowing all children -- elementary and high school -- to seek out a counselor and obtain condoms.

But according to Superintendent Beth Singer, that policy was "misinterpreted and misunderstood," and today the world descended on the smallest school district in the state, asking why it was giving condoms to first graders.

And because school officials felt strongly that those who are sexually active should have protection, they had no "opt out" clause for parents.

When the national news media descended, some locals reacted: "This is ridiculous and absurd," said one. "It's 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 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."

In fact, Provincetown's elementary school -- all 85 students -- serves children in pre-K to grade 6, but will soon admit toddlers 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."

Earlier today, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick called Singer and weighed in, saying sex education programs should be "age appropriate," and "parents ought to be involved."

Singer said she has taken his advice and the board will "relook" over its policy.

"Most of the firestorm is outside our town," she said. "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 as high as 100,000 on the Fourth of July, is the nation's self-proclaimed "oldest art colony" and former stage to playwrights like to Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams.

It has also been named the nation's "best gay resort town" and a "number one destination" for same-sex weddings, largely 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 used to difference of opinions, according to Bob Sanborn, director of the Provincetown Tourist Board.

"Because of our tradition and freedom over many years with artists, writers and bohemians and later the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community started flocking to town, it's 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 by 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 but whose wife Shannon sits on the school board, 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.

"I don't like that students can't be discreet about this," said Shannon. "They have to go and ask for it," she told the Provincetown Banner. "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 they intend to make it clear 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."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events