Condom distribution: question of moral values vs. teen health?

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

Teens Hunter Banks, Sarah Paul and Emily Burnham point to a school-wide survey as to major reasons why free condom distribution is needed at Lake Region High School.

• 53% of the 399 students responding to a survey indicated they have had consensual intercourse. The percentage is higher than the state figure of 45% as measured in 2012.

• 174 students indicated they had sexual intercourse without the use of a condom.

Rev. Doug Heuiser of Casco and Pastor Jim Marstaller of the Cornerstone Gospel Church in Naples believe the matter of birth control should remain in the hands of parents, not the school system.

The two sides collided Monday night as the SAD 61 school board revisited the question of whether free condom distribution should be allowed at the high school.

School Nurse Karry Joly brought the proposition to the board out of concern for students’ overall health. Through conversations with teens, Joly discovered many practice unprotected sex, which could lead to unwanted pregnancy, as well as contraction of sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs). Area medical professionals recently reported at both hearings that they had diagnosed local cases of STDs involving teens.

Directors continue to revise job descriptions, including the school nurse. If the school board approved condom distribution, the oversight of the free program would fall under the school nurse’s job description.

Under the proposal, free condoms would be provided by the Center for Disease Control. Joly pointed out that there is no plan to offer other forms of birth control. She presently provides informational pamphlets regarding STDs, as well as includes abstinence as an option when speaking with students about sexual practices.

Earlier in the year, the proposal was presented, but after much debate and comments of concern from parents and community members, the school board tabled action.

Monday’s public hearing at LRHS did draw a bigger crowd, but the battle lines remained the same — whose responsibility is it when it comes to birth control, parents or the school?

Survey says…

When the condom issue was first raised a variety of statistics were presented by supporters of the distribution program.

However, some community members wondered if those figures were accurate regarding rural Lake Region, or were they simply overblown because SAD 61 is in Cumberland County.

Students Sarah Paul, Emily Burnham and Hunter Banks felt there was one way to find out just what is happening amongst their peers in regards to sexual activity. They asked their classmates.

With the help of Student Advocate Jamie Riel, two surveys were prepared — a “paper” poll consisting of 26 pages given to the LRHS student body, and an “electronic” nine-question poll sent out to 1,000 parents via the school’s Infinite Campus system.

“Students insisted on the paper format, as a way to guarantee anonymity,” Riel told the school board. “We felt the electronic survey was efficient, effective and economical.”

The student poll consisted of five sections: communication with parents, sexual activity, sexual activity in regards to condoms, health issues and condom availability.

Thirty students were involved in tabulating the results.

“We emphasized to the students the importance of being unbiased, regardless of their personal feelings about the subject,” Riel said. “We need to give the school board and community good information. We hope this information will be valuable in your discussions.”

Of the 399 respondents, 207 were female and 192 were male. Meanwhile, 146 parents responded to the electronic poll. Some results:

• 292 students said they have spoken to their parents about sex;

• 94% of parents responding said they have told their teens that abstinence is a choice to consider. Meanwhile, 132 students have chosen abstinence over being sexually active;

• 291 students were comfortable speaking about condoms with their parents. When it came to asking parents for condoms, 150 said they would ask while 246 would not;

• 174 students said they had intercourse without using a condom; 74 out of 117 females said they had sex without use of a condom, while 60 out of 94 males reported the same;

• 105 thought at one point they could have been pregnant; 181 students would likely use a condom if they were available;

• 8 students reported having been tested positive for a STD, while a large number of students said they have never been tested;

• Barriers keeping teens from using condoms included: too embarrassed, no money and fear their parents would find out.

Based on the findings, Riel said concerns would be that half of the students are sexually active, sexual activity starts at an early age and too many students practice unprotected sex.

Community response

Debate centered on moral values vs. protecting student health.

Nurse Practitioner Mary Stinchfield sees teens on a daily basis, and knows many are sexually active.

“We would like to think if we don’t offer birth control, they are not going to have sex,” she said. “It’s not going to happen. We live in a sexually active society, it’s just the way the world is. We need to protect the children…This is beyond a moral issue, it’s a health issue.”

Pediatrician Wenda Saunders, M.D., said no evidence exists that offering access to condoms increases sexual activity. “There is no downside at all” to offering condom access, she added.

Nurse Deb Pine-Young, who has been employed in SAD 61 for the past three years but who has over 30 years of nursing experience, said “I had no idea I’d have to talk to people about their sex lives” when she became a nurse. Times, she said, have certainly changed.

“We need to help our young people, believe in them…our focus should be to keep kids safe and well,” she said.

Allison Caulfield of Naples pointed out that if the Lake Region was closer to Portland, “this wouldn’t even be an issue” since teens could visit a Planned Parenthood office and pick up free condoms. Here, the confidential resource does not exist.

“Without condoms, kids are playing Russian roulette with their lives.”

Sue Miller of Casco emphasized that the price of a condom, especially if they are handed out at no charge, certainly outweighs costs associated with young mothers having to be supported by welfare programs.

Pastor Jim Marstaller, however, backed the position that schools should focus on education, and leave social issues like birth control to parents. He sees schools creating a division between parents and children if programs such as free condom distribution are enacted. He also promoted “shame” as a tool to discourage sexual intercourse out of wedlock.

“Shame is not a bad thing,” he said. “It keeps a clear and clean conscience.”

Rev. Doug Heuiser of Casco voiced how society is on a course of destruction, and how schools ultimately send a mixed message when on one hand abstinence is mentioned as an option in a teen’s life, yet in the same office, free condoms are available. Rev. Heuiser wondered if condom distribution is approved would other forms of birth control being offered be next?

School officials claimed there is no plan to offer other forms of birth control.

Millie Howe of North Bridgton asked at what age do students receive sex education? Superintendent of Schools Dr. Kathleen Beecher says sex ed begins in the fifth grade and is touched upon every year after. Discussions regarding STDs, including some graphic photos, occur during health class in middle school.

Brad Boos of Casco questioned why school officials had no written policy in place regarding the condom distribution proposal so the public could review it. Boos asked for a written copy at the first hearing, but months later, one was not available at the meeting nor has it been posted on the school district website.

He also questioned whether the school district could expose itself to a malpractice suit by distributing free condoms. Pastor Marstaller wondered if there would be legal implications if a 14- or 15-year-old were to receive condoms at the school and later have sexual intercourse with a 20-year-old?

“The Pandora’s Box we could be opening here is incredible,” he said.

As emotions started to run high, student Hunter Banks took exception to comments made, which seemed to call into question Joly’s role and her motives. Tearful, Banks said Joly “cares about us” and she is simply being a voice for students who lack the confidence or self-esteem to stand up for themselves on this issue. “She is here for a good reason, the right reason,” Banks said.

After nearly an hour of emotional debate, school board member Elaine Heuiser of Casco suggested the item be tabled again to allow for more discussion. The measure passed by a 9–3 vote. More discussion will likely occur in the fall.

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