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Distribution of Condoms OKd in L.A. Schools

January 22, 1992|CHARISSE JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles Board of Education on Tuesday narrowly approved the distribution of condoms on high school campuses, but gave parents the option of denying their children permission to obtain them.

The action brings to an end more than two years of study and often-rancorous debate over the proposal.

Drawing cheers and jeers from more than 200 parents, activists and religious leaders who packed its meeting room, the board members adopted the measure by a 4-3 vote. The condom proposal was among 10 recommendations to expand AIDS education and prevention efforts that were considered during the meeting.

The Los Angeles Unified School District joins several urban school systems that have adopted condom distribution, including New York City, Philadelphia and San Francisco.

Board member Roberta Weintraub called it "a landmark decision for L.A. Unified." In addition to Weintraub, Mark Slavkin, Jeff Horton and Julie Korenstein supported the proposal. Voting against it were Barbara Boudreaux, Warren Furutani and Leticia Quezada.

"I think this board . . . lacks any credibility to step into the distribution of condoms which rightly belongs in the health services sector, when we're doing a dismal job in what we're supposed to be doing, and that's education," said Quezada.

Under the plan, high schools will send home consent forms, which give parents the option of not allowing their teen-ager to receive condoms. If parents fail to return the form, school authorities will assume that the student can receive condoms. This procedure is modeled after the consent process used in high school sex education classes.

The condom proposal was the most controversial feature of a broader effort suggested last year by the district's AIDS Education Task Force, an advisory panel that included medical experts, parents, educators and representatives of the gay and lesbian communities.

The task force recommended that the district dispense condoms to junior and senior high school students, as well as provide information on AIDS testing, prevention and treatment.

Details of the distribution will be worked out by district staff and approved by the board at a later date.

The board approved nine other proposals, including providing support services to HIV-infected employees and seeking funding for more campus health clinics. The district currently sponsors privately funded clinics on three high school campuses that make condoms available to students with parental permission.

Two of the proposals were withdrawn Tuesday night, including one that could have extended district-paid medical insurance to partners of gay employees. Officials said that measure will require negotiation with district employee unions.

From the beginning, it was the proposal to distribute condoms that triggered the most emotional debate, forcing the board to wrestle with such thorny issues as teen-age morality, parental control and legal liability.

At Tuesday night's meeting, speakers were frequently interrupted by applause, catcalls and at one point, a confrontation between audience members that nearly became a fistfight. More than two dozen speakers delivered often-impassioned pleas for or against the condom proposal and other recommendations.

Speaking in favor of the proposal were several teen-agers and parents who said they are HIV-infected. They argued that in a time when an estimated 54% of teen-agers reportedly engage in sexual activity, it is critical for the schools to offer information and options that could possibly save lives.

"This is not a time for people who don't have the courage to do what's necessary for the future," Grant High School teacher and former board member Jackie Goldberg said. "This is a time to put the children first. . . . If 10 years from now, those kids have an infection, it will be on your heads."

Jennifer Michelle, 18, who was diagnosed HIV-positive two years ago, told the board that she wishes she had learned about the use of condoms to prevent transmission of the AIDS virus early in her teen years, when she became sexually active.

"I believe if there had been education on the subject of AIDS, including complete knowledge of condom use . . . available to me at the time I became infected, I would not be dying of this disease today," said Michelle, who attended high school in Orange County and currently is enrolled in adult education courses in Los Angeles Unified.

Speakers against the condom proposal argued that the district would be promoting teen-age promiscuity and undermining parental control if it implemented the policy.

"By distributing condoms, we'll only be distributing the idea that having sex is tolerable behavior. The job of educators is to teach, not to pass out condoms," said Jim Trinity.

Others questioned how a district that has had to cancel courses and cut salaries because of a budget crisis could consider buying and giving away condoms. It is not known how much the condom distribution program will cost.

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