Condoms in D.C. schools

May 18, 1992

Faced with an AIDS infection rate six times that of the rest of the nation, District of Columbia Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly has sliced through the knotty issues surrounding teen-aged sexuality to make a basic point: protecting citizens' health is the highest priority. Her decision to distribute condoms and counseling through nurses in the public schools and through health clinics in Washington's prisons is a sensible one, given a recent Centers for Disease Control study that showed:

* 3,500 AIDS infections in 1991, a figure expected to reach 10,000 by mid-decade;

* More than 75 percent of D.C. teen-agers are estimated to be sexually active by the time they reach the 10th grade;

* Two-thirds of the boys have had at least four partners by then;

* In D.C. prisons, 16 percent of the inmates are already infected;

* Washington has 16,000 intravenous drug addicts, an estimated one-fourth HIV infected.

That impelled Mayor Kelly also to call for a clean-needle exchange to help control the spread of AIDS among drug abusers and their sexual partners, many of whom do not use drugs. Such moves make many people uncomfortable. Washington's Cardinal James Hickey has denounced the school condom plan. So has City Councilman John Ray, saying parents should decide if a school gives out condoms and that prison rules forbid inmate sex.

This debate replays itself as AIDS carves its deadly swath through American communities. But the grim specter of AIDS is forcing the hands of many who wish things were different. Hartford, Conn., already sponsors a needle exchange. Other cities, including San Francisco, look the other way while ostensibly illegal needle exchanges function.

Since 1987, Baltimore health workers have gone into drug-ridden neighborhoods to distribute condoms, brochures and bleaching kits to help drug abusers clean their needles. In seven city schools, clinics dispense counseling, condoms and birth-control information. The earlier start here derives from a 1981 experiment to reduce teen pregnancies. Now school clinics provide more comprehensive health services. That's because a 1988 study found 78 percent of the children who received school-based service had failed routine eye, hearing or dental screenings; that seven girls under 18 years of age became pregnant every day in 1987, and that a third of the 40,000 patients treated each year in the city's clinic for sexually transmitted diseases were under age 18.

It is an intolerable and dangerous situation that will not get better without drastic action. Mayor Kelly's bold moves, and expansion of initiatives such as Baltimore's school-based clinics, provide reasonable responses.

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