Free Condoms Now Just a Fact of Life at High Schools : Health: Opposition to L.A. program has all but disappeared after 14 months. Some worry that too few students are getting birth control--and advice.


A few times each week, between visits for scraped knees and headaches, school nurse Ben Torres rises from his squeaky metal chair, walks a few feet to a refrigerator, extracts a plain white envelope marked “secret ballot” and hands the packet to a student.

But what lies inside is neither secret nor a ballot. The envelopes--leftovers from some campus election--contain two latex condoms. And the student, usually a boy and one of Torres’ “regulars,” shoves the prophylactics into a pocket and casually strolls away.

Transactions like those in Torres’ Sylmar High School office have taken place thousands of times throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District since the nation’s second-largest school system began making condoms available last year, without charge, to its 127,000 high school students.


The decision outraged some parent, civic and religious groups. But 14 months into the program, the furor has practically evaporated.

Relatively few parents have exercised their right to deny their children access to the contraceptives. Students generally seem pleased that the condoms are readily obtainable, despite what some observers view as an alarmingly low level of awareness and demand. And although the program still attracts criticism, even from its most ardent supporters, condoms have become an accepted--if not always well-advertised--aspect of campus life.

“I have not received any complaint from any parent in any school,” said Josephine Jimenez, the district administrator who oversees the program. “After the dust settles, and you’re actually dealing with the parents and the teachers and the kids, all the fanfare goes away.”

Since the program began in April, 1992, about 35,000 condoms have been doled out districtwide, Jimenez said. Campus health officials, counselors, coaches and teachers who are deemed to have a good rapport with teen-agers dispense the condoms at each school site at students’ request.

The contraceptives are supplied to the district by the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services at 4 1/2 cents apiece. Opponents of the plan had blasted the district for spending money on condoms, not books, as it suffered some of its worst funding cuts in history, but Los Angeles Unified has spent only about $1,600 for the contraceptives out of its $4-billion annual budget.

And beginning this fall, the health services department will probably provide the condoms to the district free throughout the upcoming year as the department evaluates the program.


“We certainly support it,” said Sharon Novey, head of planning in the county department’s AIDS programs office. “We hope to encourage other school districts to implement the same kind of program.”

Currently, of the 49 districts in the county that serve high school students, only three--Los Angeles, Culver City and Santa Monica-Malibu--have followed the lead of several major urban school systems across the counpry by making condoms availabhe to students.

Los Angeles Unified’s program was the most contentious element of a multifaceted plan adopted by the school board to educate young people and to help staunch the spread of AIDS. During three months of public hearings, religious organizations and angry parents accused the board of undermining family values and promoting promiscuity. Medical experts and gay rights activists insisted that the issue was purely health.

The board eventually backed away from providing condoms at junior high schools and allowed parents of high school students to deny their children access by sending in a multilingual form mailed to them by the district--an opt-out procedure known as negative consent.

But a survey by The Times of more than half of the district’s 49 high schools found only a handful with opt-out rates higher than 10%.

By contrast, a majority of schools reported that fewer than 5% of parents have denied their youngsters access to condoms--a figure in line with those logged by the Philadelphia and San Francisco school systems, which have similar programs.


At Jordan High School in Watts, no parents withheld permission.

“We received no forms back--not a single one. I even double-checked it,” said Assistant Principal Gail Greer.

Even in heavily Latino, predominantly Catholic neighborhoods, the numbers were fairly low, in spite of strenuous opposition from local churches that bused parishioners to the district’s public hearings to denounce the proposal. The proportion of parejts opting out at San Fernando and South Gate high schools, which serve nearly all-Latino student populations, was also below 5%.

“The opposition was never what it seemed to be. I never thought the opposition was very deep and wide,” said Jeff Horton, the school board’s most outspoken champion of condom availability and comprehensive AIDS education.

But critics contend that forcing parents to write in to restrict condom access virtually guarantees low opt-out rates.

“This is what the district was counting on,” said Eadie Gieb, president of Parents and Students United of the San Fernando Valley, an organization that opposed the clinics and the condom availability plan. “We would’ve preferred for the district to cooperate with the sensitivities of the parents and asked for positive consent. Then you would have seen the reflection of the numbers being exactly the opposite.”

Students barred from receiving condoms can still get prophylactics from friends who are allowed to get them, Gieb said.


Parents “have completely lost control,” she said. “Even if they sign the opt-out form, that by no means keeps their child from having access to condoms on campus.”

Many youths, meanwhile, say the program does not encourage kids to have sex.

“Students are going to have sex regardless of whether you have condoms in school or not,” said Shawn Young, 17, a senior at Locke High School in South-Central Los Angeles.

According to district guidelines, the person in charge of the distribution must first check the name of the student requesting condoms against a list of those whose parents have withheld consent.

The adult must then counsel that abstinence is the only fail-safe way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. A description of how to use a condom ensues, and finally the student is given the condoms as well as a small information booklet.

Some teen-agers complain that the process is cumbersome and awkward.

“People feel it’s too embarrassing that we have to go talk to teachers,” said Isabel Pasillas, 18, a senior at Huntington Park High School. “Then they give you this lecture. People say, ‘Why go through that when you can just go to Sav-On?’ ”

Said William Warner, 18, of Locke High: “You don’t want to hear a sermon every time you go get a condom.”


Other youths disagree, believing that it is important for adults to be involved. An anonymous, “fishbowl”-style distribution--where students can just freely grab condoms set out in an office or classroom--would be abused, some teen-agers say.

Nearly all students interviewed, however, support distributing condoms on campus, although many say the program should be better publicized and less intimidating.

Similar criticisms have come from board member Horton and others who advocate a more liberal policy of “no questions asked--just take one,” without possibility of parental veto.

Too few students have taken advantage of the program as it stands now, they say. Although 35,000 condoms have been handed out districtwide, the number of youths requesting them is less than half that because officials give out two or more condoms per visit and many youths are “repeat customers.”

“This is a pretty meager effort,” said Torres, the Sylmar High nurse. “I see this mainly as PR--a way to get kids to think about safety.”

“I don’t think that the program has been very effective at all,” said Virginia Uribe, a teacher at Fairfax High School and founder of Project 10, a well-known dropout prevention program and support network for gay and lesbian youths. “We have to make the condoms much more accessible, without all of the hurdles and obstacles the kids have to go through.”


Also, they contend that the district must strengthen its AIDS curriculum so that students better understand the importance of using condoms.

In L.A. Unified, officials estimate that 5,000 girls each year become pregnant, and most of them drop out of school. In Los Angeles County, teen-agers between 15 and 19 had the highest rate of chlamydia infection and the second-highest rate of gonorrhea cases out of all age groups last year.

And the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that AIDS is the leading cause of death among men age 25 to 44 in California. Although teen-agers account for a fraction of the AIDS cases in Los Angeles County, because of the disease’s long incubation period experts suggest that most of those between 20 and 29 who have acquired immune deficiency syndrome contracted the virus as teen-agers.

Officials say it is too early to tell whether the Los Angeles school district’s condom availability program has made any inroads against unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. But in the face of such disturbing statistics, some say, the district’s program falls somewhat short.

“I won’t say it’s having no effect--it’s having some effect,” Horton said. “I don’t know how someone could say we should stop doing what little we’re doing.

“But it seems to me we’re not doing enough.”

Condom Programs The Los Angeles Unified School District is one of several major urban school systems that have made condoms available on high school campuses. Here are some programs in other cities:



* Distribution: In 1991, the New York City school system--the nation’s largest--became the first major urban district to offer condoms to high school students. About 270,000 students attend New York City’s 125 high schools.

* Students must go to specific classrooms on each campus that are staffed by specially trained adults, who provide the condoms and educational materials.

* Parents do not have the option of denying their children access to condoms. Controversy over the program helped lead to the ouster of schools chief Joseph A. Fernandez.


* Distribution: Nine of the district’s 40 high schools have made condoms available, with the rest to follow whenever funding--which must be from outside sources--becomes available.

* Students receive condoms and counseling in designated classrooms, which are voluntarily staffed by outside health-care officials.

* Parents can take their children out of the program, but only about 4% of parents in the nine high schools have done so.



* Distribution: The district’s 19 high schools work with community health-care groups and providers who send volunteers to give out condoms at each school. Each campus establishes its distribution site and hours.

* Students: The district began making condoms available to about 20,000 high school students in March. Students receive counseling as well as condoms.

* Parents have the option of denying their children access to condoms, but as in Philadelphia, only about 4% have done so.

Sources: New York City, Philadelphia and San Francisco school districts.