Students in 22 Philadelphia high schools will return from winter break to find condom vending machines in the nurse’s office. CNN reported that the free condoms are part of a larger campaign to combat STI’s, particularly HIV, so the condoms will be distributed in the schools with the highest infection rates.
According to the CDC, 61% of Philadelphia high school students are sexually active, and 40% of those have had unprotected sex. Consequently, one in every four people who become infected with HIV in Philadelphia is a teenager.
Deputy Mayor for Health and Opportunity Don Schwarz told CNN, “Condoms are an important part of general prevention,” but not the be all and end all of sexual health: “parents need to be educating their kids and talking to their kids about appropriate sexual behaviors,” he said.
Schwarz said that parents would be able to play a role in their children’s sexual education, despite the condoms in schools, by opting their children out of the distribution. Since the vending machines will be in nurses’ offices, he said, students hoping to use them would be checked against a list to ensure that their parents have not opted them out of receiving condoms.
Fifteen percent of Philadelphia students say they weren’t taught about HIV in school, CNN reported, and Schwarz responded, “We think both [education and condoms] are important.”
“If you look at condoms as the only intervention we’re not going to see the right endpoint,” Schwarz said. Instead, he also hopes to “raise awareness about safer sex and provide a tool if young people are interested in being safer.”
If the program is successful, school district spokesman Fernando Gallard told Reuters, it could be implemented in the rest of Philadelphia’s 51 high schools.
In one poll of 189 Philadelphia residents, 98% were in favor of condom distribution in high schools. Though organizations like Focus on the Family have compared condoms to matches and sex to forest fires, comprehensive sexual education programs have not been shown to increase sexual activity in teenagers. Providing teens with both the knowledge and the tools necessary to make informed decisions about their sexual health will only enable them to protect themselves against incurable STI’s like HIV or teen pregnancies that would fundamentally change the course of their lives.
Hopefully, the Philadelphia schools will make good on their promise to teach students about the proper use of condoms for disease protection and contraception: condoms fail 15% of the time, as they are commonly used by people who have not always been taught how to use them, but less than 5% of the time when used correctly. Making condoms available to high school students who may not have the money or the ability to procure them on their own is crucial, but so is teaching them how — and why — to use them.