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School Committee approves controversial condom policy

Date: 4/9/2012

April 9, 2012

By G. Michael Dobbs

SPRINGFIELD — After several efforts to amend the policy that would allow the establishment of a program to distribute condoms to Springfield school children as young as the age of 12, the Springfield School Committee voted to approve the program.

School Committee members Antonette Pepe, Norman Roldan, and Peter Murphy did not vote in favor of the measure. Of the three, Murphy was the most adamant in his opposition.

"As the parent of 9 year-old twins, I think this sends a bad message," Murphy said. "It's somewhat horrifying to me."

Murphy contended there was no data to show that in other communities where such a program existed that school achievement rates improved or pregnancy rates lowered.

He noted that, according to information supplied to the School Committee, there are about 81 students who are now pregnant out of the 27,000 students in the district.

Murphy suggested the policy be changed so parents had to "opt into" the program, rather than "opt out" of it. His motion failed.

He believed that distributing condoms to 16 year-old students — the age of consent in Massachusetts — was more appropriate.

Both Pepe and Roldan made motions that failed that would have started the program in high school rather than in middle school. While in favor of the program, Pepe noted the School Committee members had a responsibility to listen to the many parents who had contacted them with concerns.

Mayor Domenic Sarno said that when he took office he was told, "not to touch this issue with a 10-foot pole."

"Should this come from the home, come from the church?" he asked. "Yes, it should."

Sarno said the policy is "all about keeping children in school."

The mayor maintained that preventing unwanted pregnancies was a step in preventing poverty and would increase graduation rates.

According to information supplied before the meeting by Dr. Sarah Perez McAdoo, executive director of Youth Empowerment Adolescent Health Network, Springfield has the fourth highest teen birth rate in the state. In 2010, 13 percent of Hispanic teen girls and 6 percent of African American teen girls in the city gave birth.

She also reported that in 2010, 28 percent of seventh graders reported having sexual intercourse, up from 25 percent in 2006. 51 percent of the city's ninth graders reported they had had sexual intercourse and of that group 56 percent reported they did not use any form of birth control.

When asked by Pepe about the city's liability if a birth should occur from a failed condom distributed by school nurses, the School Committee's legal council, Melinda Phelps, said the city should be protected as the student receiving the condom would go through an educational program detailing abstinence as an alternative, health risks and safe and effective use, among other topics. The school nurses will be keeping track of each condom distributed by recording lot numbers and expiration dates. These steps would limit the city's liability, she said.

School Committee Vice Chair Christopher Collins noted his displeasure after the final vote that School Superintendent Dr. Alan Ingram was not present for the meeting.

Although many of the members of the public were clearly in favor of the policy, one resident was not. Matthew Ferri, who has three children in the public schools, had argued against the policy as it was proposed and had addressed multiple concerns in a letter to the School Committee. He did not believe what he had read of the policy was "comprehensive."

"This is a very sad day for the Springfield public school system," Ferri said after the meeting.

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