Certain Gervais School District teachers will provide middle and high school students with condoms and counseling after study reveals 30 percent of sexually active students have had unprotected sex

After numerous media outlets emphasized a disbursement of condoms to Gervais sixth-graders by the Gervais School District, officials are still standing behind their decision, citing a district-wide study conducted last year that revealed sexually active Gervais teens were having unsafe sex.

At a May 15 meeting, the Gervais School Board voted unanimously to allow a select group of teachers to provide condoms and condom education to students in grades 6-12 who approach them.

The board came to this conclusion after hearing results of a study, conducted by Oregon Health & Science University nurses who were working in partnership with the district. The nurses were authorized to conduct the survey in April 2013, after it was revealed that 19 babies were born to Gervais students that year alone. The findings were presented to the board in November 2013.

The survey results showed that 40 percent of interviewed students — nearly all of the district’s teens — have had sex and, of that 40 percent, 57 percent have had a pregnancy scare. Also of that 40 percent, 30 percent said they had unprotected sex at least once. That percentage also had experienced a scare of having contracted a sexually-transmitted disease.

The study also looked into what has already been available to Gervais teens as far as contraceptives, specifically condoms. The only place in Gervais to obtain a condom, besides one’s parents, is at the Gervais Market, but it’s a visible area in a small town. Going to one’s parents would also be unlikely because, according to the study, 83 percent of the students surveyed said they were uncomfortable broaching the topic with their parents. The nurses also revealed that the Marion County Health Department has locations in Woodburn and Salem that provide free condoms, but the distance and hours of operation are barriers for Gervais teens.

During the presentation of the study, the OHSU nurses shared evidence that in schools that do make condoms available to students, neither sexual activity or the number of partners increases.

Based on this information, the school board not only approved a first reading of the district’s policy on human sexuality, AIDS/HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, health education at its April meeting, but it also agreed to discuss the distribution of condoms in May to give the public time to view the policy.

“Plus it’s really not related to the curriculum; it’s a separate issue,” school board Chair Brent LaFollette said.

In spring 2009, the Oregon legislature approved a more progressive approach to sex education, shying away from the abstinence-only approach and making sure districts provide skills-based information. What districts do beyond that is up to each individual board.

Woodburn School District, while it doesn’t hand out condoms to students, does provide resources on where students can get them. The district currently has 22 teen moms.

“Kids know where to get it,” Superintendent Chuck Ransom said. “Of course we promote abstinence and monogamous relationships, but we have to provide balanced, accurate information and skills-based instruction.”

But in Gervais, the percentage of teen pregnancies is higher, with nine known pregnancies this year.

“It’s hard to ignore the facts, regardless of personal feelings about it,” LaFollette said.

At the May meeting, the Gervais School Board voted to allow condoms to be made available to students in grades 6-12, but not without an extensive discussion that involved district administrators. The board was originally going to vote for just allowing it at the high school.

“I would feel irresponsible if I have to tell a middle school student that we can give protection to the high school but not the middle school,” Michele Paton, Gervais Middle School’s assistant principal, said.

The board not only voted to make it available to grades 6-12, but also that it would be made available only through the distribution of a few trusted teachers, as recommended by district administrators.

“I recommend we have four or five trained staff so the education side of it is sound,” Mike Solem, principal of both Gervais High and Middle schools, said. “School is still school and I think we should keep that component in the distribution of condoms.”

“There are no fish bowls or vending machines kids can just grab (from) and go,” Molly McCargar, board member, added. “They will be talked with before walking out with them in hand. Distribution is not an accurate description; access under guidance is what should be stressed.”

Administrators also assuaged concerns of the board that students would be too embarrassed to ask, citing that students were already asking the health teacher.

“Every kid goes through his class, so they’re comfortable with him,” Solem said, citing that every high school student takes a full year of health class.

While McCargar said she believes that parents should be the ones having these types of discussions with their children, she admits that’s only something that can be relied on in ideal situations.

“If we do our job as parents this won’t be an issue,” she said. “But not every parent is participating in their children’s lives. Who do they get help from? By turning our heads to the at-risk kids we are being irresponsible and not doing our jobs as educators. After a discussion that lasted well over a year, personal morals aside, we made a decision that we felt will be best for our students’ health and wellbeing.”

The full implementation of the condom availability in Gervais will begin in the fall.

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