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NYC Schools Chief Wants On-Campus Condom Giveaways

December 21, 1990

NEW YORK (AP) _ They’ll still need their parents’ permission for field trips, but teen- agers in the nation’s largest school system could get condoms next year simply by asking.

Schools Chancellor Joseph Fernandez believes it’s a matter of life - or death from AIDS. New York City is home to about 3 percent of the nation’s 13- to 21-year-olds, but it has 20 percent of all AIDS cases in that age group.

″We are sitting on a time bomb,″ Fernandez said.

If the Board of Education approves Fernandez’s proposal next month, condoms would be available on request as early as next spring at 120 schools that enroll 261,000 students.

It would be the nation’s most liberal public school AIDS policy, said Robin Lewis, spokeswoman for the Center for Population Options, a teen education and advocacy group based in Washington.

A public hearing will be held Jan. 16. Since October, outspoken opponents and supporters lined up at board meetings to establish battle lines.

″Chancellor Fernandez is showing an enormous amount of courage and leadership in tackling this issue,″ said Trish Moylan Torruella, education director of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. ″There are alarmingly high rates of HIV among adolescents in New York City, particularly among African Americans and Hispanics.″

Opponents, like Monsignor John Woolsey, a Roman Catholic leader of the 75- member Coalition of Concerned Clergy, say doling out condoms at schools would endorse promiscuity.

Eleanor Kelly, a mother of three teen-agers and past president of the conservative group Parent Roundtable, agrees: ″A contraceptive approach ... sends the wrong message and promotes a false sense of security, thereby encouraging more of our young people to engage in high-risk behavior.″

Fernandez said he’s sensitive to the moral dilemma, but the issue goes beyond sex.

″I don’t disregard, offhand, their point of view as it being a moral issue,″ said Fernandez. ″I’m saying that from my perspective, with my chancellor’s hat on, I’m looking at some very horrendous and frightening data that deals with kids living or not living.″

The plan calls for trained volunteers to give away condoms at each public high school. Counseling or parental permission would not be required. Fernandez says that would scare kids away.

Fernandez said new AIDS and sex education programs will continue to stress that abstinence is the only guaranteed method of avoiding the sexual transmission of AIDS.

But he says adults must be realistic. The city Health Department estimates 80 percent of the New York’s young people have had sex by age 19.

″I wish I could stand up in front of my students and tell them ‘abstain’ and have the assurances that by teaching that, that would happen,″ he said. ″But it’s not happening.″

The city Health Department says that as of September, 28 percent of the AIDS patients in the city, or about 4,200 people, were ages 20 to 29. Many contracted it as teen-agers.

A Gallup poll for New York Newsday showed 60 percent of New York adults approved of the condom plan. Among parents of children in public schools, 54 percent approved and 39 percent disapproved.

Elsewhere, students can get condoms at high school health clinics in Chicago, Baltimore and at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School clinic in Massachusetts.

In Mill Valley, Calif., a lawsuit from opponents stalled efforts to distribute condoms. In October, a school board in Easton, Md., rejected a plan for nurses to distribute condoms at two high schools.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta says 56 percent of high school students nationwide have had sex and about 20 percent had four or more partners. It estimates that 1 in every 200 people ages 15 to 24 has the AIDS virus.

Other sexually transmitted diseases are rampant in that age group, and 1 million pregnancies a year ″result from the very same behavior,″ said Dr. Lloyd Kolbe, head of the AIDS school health education branch of the CDC.

″Each community needs to address its unique nature and concerns and make decisions based on epidemiology as well as ... values,″ said Kolbe. ″On both sides of the argument, people really are looking to do the best thing.″

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