In 2013, 47 percent of high school students reported having sexual intercourse. Furthermore, nearly one in two 12th grade students reported having had intercourse in the last three months. You and I both know that high school students have sex. Why, then, did the superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools, Dr. Owen Roberts, take a major step back for the sexual health of local youth and ban the distribution of condoms on campuses of public high schools?
In the fall, Roberts had a meeting with health department staff who informed him condoms were being distributed on high school campuses. Some nurses, admittedly, were giving out brown paper bags with condoms and instructions for students who went to their office. Advocacy groups were also encouraging safe sex by giving out contraceptives. As soon as Roberts became aware of these condom distributions, however, he banned them from campuses. He asserted that parents should decide whether their children have access to condoms, and the school system should not “cross that line.”
Parents and their children don’t always engage in these necessary conversations about sex, though. For teens, sex is much easier done than said. Adolescents grow up using euphemisms for sexual organs, and they rarely feel comfortable discussing sex. Parents, on the other hand, often live in states of euphoric ignorance. Many are unaware of their childrens’ sex lives, and they avoid potentially awkward conversations by settling for the sexual education their kids receive in school.
The result is a dangerous game of hot potato, played at the expense of local youth. Schools look to parents to decide whether adolescents should have access to contraceptives, and parents are often so uncomfortable to have the conversations that lead to safe-sex habits that they often ignore the matter altogether. When neither side takes the initiative, the students suffer.
An article by The Gainesville Sun reported that more 15- to 24-year-old individuals contract STDs each year than any other age group in Alachua County. If that isn’t frightening enough, a study from 2011 to 2013 ranked Alachua County with the third-highest rate of people with gonorrhea, chlamydia and infectious syphilis in Florida. Local high school students are obviously among those who are most at risk of acquiring these STDs, and something needs to be done to address that. Changing family dynamics and facilitating conversations about the importance of safe sex will take much more time, so, until then, we need schools to help students overcome these obstacles.
Right now, free condoms are available at the Florida Department of Health in Alachua County, the Gainesville branch of Planned Parenthood and even Coffee Culture, a local coffee shop just north of Gainesville High School. Condoms are indeed obtainable, but they’re not as convenient as when they were on students’ campuses five days a week.
If we want future generations to practice healthy sex habits before it’s too late, we need to provide them with free information and materials that are easily accessible. Avoiding the concern and expecting adolescents to travel to distant locations and engage in awkward conversations in order to acquire contraception is not in the best interest of our upcoming generations.
Roberts said he doesn’t believe it’s the responsibility of the school system to give out condoms, and, legally, he’s right. Health education in public schools is not required to go beyond teaching the basics, promoting abstinence and giving students advice. But why would schools choose to limit their initiatives solely to what they’re responsible for on paper?
If Alachua County Public Schools reintroduce the distribution of condoms on high school campuses, they will make an admirable effort to look out for the health of their students and they will display a level of maturity and consciousness that is gratifying to see among educators. We all know high school students have sex. So let’s do the right thing by making healthy sexual behavior more than a concept taught in a classroom.
Let’s empower students with easy access to contraceptives and make it possible for them to extend what they learn in the classroom to what they’re already doing in the bedroom. Then, we will be actively preventing adolescents from having to carry the potential consequences of unsafe sex to college and throughout their lives.
Christopher Wilde is a UF biochemistry freshman. His column appears on Wednesdays.
[A version of this story ran on page 8 on 4/22/2015]