Clarification: The draft policy described below includes a provision for providing condoms for students in grades 7-12. That policy was taken from a neighboring school district, and that language was removed during Monday's meeting, as is described later in the article. The MAU board has no intention of providing condoms at the middle school at this time.
BENNINGTON — The Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union policy committee has begun drafting a policy that would outline condom availability programs, such as the one currently being discussed at the Mount Anthony Union level.
Board Chairman Leon Johnson presented a draft of a potential policy on adolescent health, and asked committee members for suggestions about what else could be included in that policy, besides condom distribution. Vice-chairman Dick Frantz disagreed with the idea of making the policy so broad. "I think everyone agrees that you want to make policies as accessible as possible," he said, "and calling it 'Adolescent Health' and making it a 10 or 12 section policy isn't going to solve any problems. I think if you want to talk about condom availability, label it as such, and get straight to the point." The board was generally in agreement with this idea.
The draft policy, which was borrowed from a neighboring school district, contains five points. "1. Parents are encouraged to talk to their children about issues of sexuality and the parents' values relating to sexual behavior. 2. Appropriate counseling will be provided by specifically trained and designated faculty/staff to each student requesting condoms. 3. Condoms will be available, upon request, to any Mount Anthony Union Middle School or Mount Anthony Union High School student in grades 7-12. 4. In order to protect student privacy, no records will be maintained relating to requests for condoms. 5. It will be the students' decision whether to access the available services."
Career Development Center representative Bruce Lee-Clark thought that item one should not be included in the policy, saying, "That's lovely advice, and I think it's true advice, personally, but that's not what school policy can do." The committee agreed to strike item one.
Another issued discussed by the committee was whether or not the policy should contain language that would guarantee parents the right to opt their children out of any condom availability programs, similar to what the MAU board had recently included in its motion to explore creating a program. Lee-Clark pointed out that item five seems to contradict that sentiment, by guaranteeing that students will be able to make their own decisions.
Mount Anthony Union Middle School principal Tim Payne said that, in certain ways, he was uncomfortable with the idea of a list of students who would not be able to acquire condoms from the school. He said it could put a staff member in a difficult situation in which a student requests a condom, the staff member finds that their parent has opted them out of the program, and the staff member has to send the student away, knowing that they are now likely to engage in unsafe sex. "You're placing the staff member in a position where they know that a person, potentially under the age of 18, is considering sexual activity. Are you then charging that person to be required to then notify a parent and tell them that their student is requesting a condom?" he asked, pointing out that the reason the student would have come to the staff member would be because they, for whatever reason, weren't comfortable having that conversation at home.
"I totally agree, and relate to the scenario Tim painted," said MAU High School principal Glenda Cresto, "My question is, the board passed a motion (which included the ability for parents to opt-their children out). So, to move away from that, what's the procedure?"
Bennington representative Jackie Kelly recommended giving each school the ability to make its own decisions.
"I have two concerns," said Lee-Clark, "What happens when a student turns 18? Does the opt-out of the parent still hold for those students who are over 18, and are we going to keep track of that? Secondly, if you have an opt-out provision, and you choose to use it, what happens when a student whose parent wanted to opt them out gets one anyway, because someone screwed up?... You might be taking on more liability with the opt-out provision than without."
Kelly pointed out that students of any age can legally purchase condoms in Vermont, and likened it to the nurse providing band-aids. "Can you go to the nurse for a band-aid? Yes. Can you go to the nurse for a condom? Yes. It's a moot point."
MAU assistant principal David Beriau pointed out that enforcement would be almost impossible, as kids who are not on the opt-out list could still get condoms for kids who are. After more discussion, the board agreed that there should not be an opt-out clause in the policy.
The committee also agreed to modify item three to read "Condoms shall be made available to students of the SVSU as their governing boards deem appropriate," which allows individual school districts to decide whether they want to have a condom distribution program or not. It also allows for the MAU board to decide to have the program start initially only at the high school, and potentially expand it to the middle school later, if necessary. Item five was also changed to read "The individual student will decide whether to access the available services."
Work on this policy will continue, and, once finalized, it will need to be approved by all boards in the SVSU.
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.