ST. MICHAELS -- Fearing that dispensing condoms at school would send teen-agers the "wrong message," the Talbot County school board rejected yesterday a proposal to let high school nurses give them to sexually active students.
The proposal to give students condoms without their parents' consent was defeated 4-3, with board President Laura S. Harrison casting the tie-breaking vote.
Talbot, an Eastern Shore county of 30,330, would have been the first Maryland jurisdiction outside Baltimore to dispense condoms in schools. Baltimore's Health Department does so at seven middle and high school clinics.
Dr. John M. Ryan, the Talbot County health officer, made the proposal last month. He cited an increase in sexually transmitted disease among county teen-agers and a Johns Hopkins University survey showing that 36 percent of Talbot 10th-graders reported frequent sexual intercourse while only 11 percent said they used contraceptives.
Dr. Ryan portrayed dispensing condoms as a health issue -- a way to protect students from disease, including AIDS -- but a majority of the board members viewed it as a moral issue.
"I'm disappointed," Dr. Ryan said after the vote at St. Michaels High School. "The problem is not going to go away just because we don't want to deal with it."
Tom Farmer, president of the Easton High School student government, which overwhelmingly supported the proposal, said he was dismayed by the vote.
"I wish I knew what was going through their heads," said Mr. Farmer, a senior. "Obviously it wasn't the concerns of the students."
Diana Callaway, principal of St. Michaels High School, said her school was an appropriate place to dispense condoms. The county health department now dispenses them only at its Easton clinic, 9 miles away.
"I don't believe teen-age sexual activity is desirable, but students make those choices and I don't want them to die for those choices," she said.
County Council President Thomas G. Duncan applauded the board's decision. "What message would we be sending to the 65 percent of the kids practicing abstinence?" he asked.
The proposal had been aired at two emotional hearings, and only four members of the public spoke about it at yesterday's meeting -- one in favor and three against.
Heather Crow, a St. Michaels High art teacher, came to the meeting to present her students' artwork to the board, but made an impromptu plea to reject Dr. Ryan's proposal.
"We know deep in our hearts we don't have to get involved with this," she said.
Board member F. Hooper Bond, who voted against the proposal, said: "The system needs to teach some sort of code of basic morality. We need to face that. We're not doing it, and the statistics prove we're not doing it."
Mrs. Harrison said after the vote that she hoped "some kind of task force" could be formed to strengthen school district efforts to promote abstinence.
However, Dr. Ryan said such programs "postpone sexual activity for six months but don't keep it from happening."
Board member Susan C. Dillon, who voted for the proposal, noted that it would have permitted condoms to be given only after counseling and only to students deemed "at risk for disease."
"This issue is not going to go away," she said. "The statistics will become more alarming, and more of our children will become part of those statistics."
Students in the St. Michaels High parking lot received the board's decision calmly.
Brooke Rhine, a 16-year-old junior, said she didn't think schools could control all the factors that lead teen-agers to have sex. But she supported dispensing condoms to those in need.
"It wasn't going to hurt anything," she said.
Senior Jerry Fisher, 16, said he didn't care whether condoms were made available at school.
"I don't use them, so I'm not worried about it," he said.