CPS to distribute free condoms at 24 high schools this fall

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Twenty-four Chicago Public high schools will start distributing free condoms to students this fall, under a pilot program tailor-made to curb sexually-transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy.

Chicago’s teen birth rate for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 is 57-per-1,000. That’s nearly twice as high as New York City and 1.5 times the rate nationwide, according to Chicago’s “Action Plan for Healthy Adolescents” distributed to aldermen Wednesday.

Young people are also the “only population group that continues to see a rise” in HIV infections, the report states.

Hispanic and African-American teens are up to three times more likely to give birth than white teens. The highest percentage of teen births occur in the poorest communities.

Last year, the Chicago Department of Public Health distributed more than nine million condoms at 476 locations, ranging from “service sites” to barber shops.

Next fall, 24 Chicago Public high schools will join the list, as part of a “teen pregnancy prevention initiative” bankrolled by a five-year, $20 million federal grant, according to Stephanie Whyte, Chief Health Officer for CPS.

Testifying Wednesday before the City Council’s Health and Education Committees on plans to improve adolescent health, Whyte pointed to results from a recent survey of the sexual behaviors of CPS high school students.

“What stands out is, 52 percent of our high school students have had sexual intercourse. Just under 18 percent of them have had four or more partners in their lifetime and only about 64 percent have used a condom in the last month,” Whyte said.

CPS currently leaves it up to each principal’s discretion in deciding whether to make condoms available to students. But CPS does offer recommendations to the school’s health and wellness center should the principal decide to do so, like making sure the person offering the condoms is trained in sexual health education. CPS also requires parents and guardians to be notified if the student is provided with any sexual health education.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the decision to distribute condoms to high school students a bow to reality.

“It’s an acknowledgement of what’s happening, whether you did that or not. It’s…an attempt to deal, from a health care perspective, [with] both pregnancy as well as socially-transmitted diseases,” Emanuel told an unrelated news conference about crime.

“I respect it as a pilot. But, I want everybody to understand that doesn’t mean you’re absolved — either as a parent or an adult — to talk to an adolescent about responsible behavior, respecting who you’re with and doing what’s right, not what’s convenient.”

Ald. Latasha Thomas (17th), chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee, was asked whether distributing free condoms would be viewed by some parents as CPS condoning sexual promiscuity.

“Some parents are gonna have problems with it — absolutely. I understand it. My kids are grown now. But, I remember those teenaged years,” Thomas said.

“But, the reality is they’re having sexual intercourse and the stats say [35 percent] of the people who are having sexual intercourse in high school aren’t using any protection. None. They still have a process where they teach them to abstain. But, at the end of the day, they have to deal with the reality.”

Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Bechara Choucair called the pilot program at 24 high schools “one tool” to help students make “educated decisions” before having sex.

“If they need condoms, we want to make sure they do have access to condoms. This is going to be the pilot this year. We’ll see how it goes and we’ll take it from there” before determining whether to expand it to all high schools, the commissioner said.

As for parents who oppose such a program, Choucair said, “Keep in mind that we have strict laws in Chicago and Illinois that empower students around STI services and all of these other key issues for youth that they can make their own consent.”

The Chicago Board of Education is now mid-way through a three-year sexual health education policy approved in February, 2012 that includes “required minutes” tailor-made for students in kindergarten all the way through high school seniors.

CPS is also collaborating with the Health Department on a plan to educate and screen students about sexually-transmitted diseases. It started at four schools and has since been expanded to 40 schools with 25,000 students.

The five-year, $20 million federal grant for teen pregnancy prevention focuses on building life skills, promoting healthy behaviors and developing what Whyte calls a “sense of purpose.”

The teen outreach component — featuring community service — already includes 18 high schools and 3,200 students-a-year in ZIP codes with the highest risk of teen pregnancy, Whyte said.

“We’re excited about the outcomes. We expect to see an over 60 percent reduced risk of failing courses and suspensions and a decreased risk of teen pregnancy by over 50 percent,” she said.

Contributing: Tina Sfondeles

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