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New CPS program puts free condoms in nearly every school — including elementaries

When Chicago Public Schools students head back to their schools next month, any school with kids in the 5th grade and up will offer birth control.

Under a new CPS policy, schools that teach fifth grade and up must maintain a condom availability program.
| Sun-Times photo illustration

When Chicago Public Schools fully reopen late next month for the first time since the start of the pandemic, students will be returning to schools stocked with hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, masks, forehead thermometers and air purifiers.

But nearly every CPS school will also have items that experts say will keep students healthy and safe regardless of the status of the pandemic: menstruation products and condoms.

Both will be provided as the result of a new policy passed by the CPS Board of Education in December. A similar action that will require all schools in Illinois provide menstruation products generated far more attention this spring when it was passed by state lawmakers in Springfield.

Under the CPS policy, schools that teach fifth grade and up must maintain a condom availability program as part of an expanded vision of sexual health education. That means all but a dozen, which enroll only younger grades, of the more than 600 CPS schools will have condoms.

The idea was years in the making and, though it may come with some controversy, was what many experts agreed was a step in the right direction for student health, CPS’ top doctor Kenneth Fox said in an interview last week. Until now, principals have had massive leeway to use their own discretion on sex-related education and resources.

“Young people have the right to accurate and clear information to make healthy decisions,” said Fox, a pediatrician of 30 years. “And they need access to resources to protect their health and the health of others as they act on those decisions.”

Preventing ‘bad stuff’ is key, CPS top doc says

Fox said the goal is prevention.

“Essentially what we want to do is make condoms available to students for if and when they think they need them,” he said. “ … When you don’t have those protections and don’t make those resources available then bad stuff happens to young people. You have elevated risks of sexually transmitted infections, of unintended pregnancies, and that’s very preventable stuff.”

To start, elementary schools will get 250 condoms and high schools — many of which already make them available — will get 1,000. The Chicago Department of Public Health will provide the condoms at no cost to the district as part of the city’s effort to prevent teen pregnancies, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. When a school runs out, principals will be told to request more from CPS and CDPH.

Schools will get a letter from Fox explaining the policy to parents, and principals will receive guidance for where to store the condoms and how to operate the program. The condoms should be in easily accessible locations in the school while also not too out in the open so there’s still privacy for students, Fox said.

“I would expect that not everybody is going to be completely on board right from the start, but I do think society has changed,” Fox said.

Asked why fifth grade was the target year, Fox said that decision was “informed by a developmental understanding of children,” and he didn’t believe there would be any adverse effects on younger kids.

In alignment with state standards, CPS’ sex ed curriculum includes lessons on puberty, hygiene, gender identity, relationships, sexual harassment, birth control, abstinence and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.

“CPS stresses that choosing to not have sex is the norm for 5th graders. Parents/guardians should be notified by their school if a condom demonstration will be provided,” the curriculum reads.

Parent education will be key to making families comfortable, and so will staff training so educators can have discussions with parents since local schools are likely to be their first stop, Fox said.

Scout Bratt, outreach and education director at Chicago Women’s Health Center
LinkedIn

Expert: Providing condoms does not encourage their use

Scout Bratt, an outreach and education director at the Chicago Women’s Health Center, said there will be plenty of parents who don’t believe this program is right for their family, and it’ll be the district’s responsibility to listen to those concerns and offer direct communication about what condom availability does and doesn’t mean.

“I want to be really clear that the existence of condoms does not mean that all students are going to be using those condoms or encouraged to use them,” Bratt said. “The idea is to say we are educational centers, we are community health centers essentially, and we know to invest in young folks’ health and well-being by providing comprehensive sex ed, it means we also need to provide the resources.

“We want students to come to us and to have access to those condoms for free as opposed to potentially having to find them elsewhere or choose not to use condoms. ... It is about recognizing that school is investing in young people’s health.”

Bratt said there’s no evidence to suggest access to condoms will lead to more kids deciding to have sex. The idea is that those who are already making those decisions will now have an easier way to protect themselves.

“It’s a harm reduction approach,” Bratt said.

The Women’s Health Center is one of 28 organizations, including local hospitals, that CPS consulted through a sexual health advisory committee created in 2019, the district said. Faith leaders from different religions and parts of the city were also engaged.

In addition to condoms, CPS’ sexual health policy calls for free menstrual products in at least one bathroom in every school. State lawmakers in May passed legislation requiring menstrual products in school bathrooms despite Republican objections about tampons, pads or cups being available to transgender boys in male-designated restrooms.

Fox said offering free menstrual products was a matter of “equity and justice” because many don’t have access for financial reasons, or so-called “period poverty.” Bratt said that can lead to people missing school while menstruating, a dire educational impact — and added that it’s important to provide resources to those who menstruate no matter their gender identity.

The grassroots group Healing to Action conducted a campaign to improve CPS sexual education curriculum last year under the hashtag, #sexedworks.
Instagram/Healing to Action

CPS is doing things backwards, parent says

Maria Serrano, whose daughter is heading into her sophomore year in high school, said condoms would be a helpful resource as long as sex education is up to par.

But Healing to Action, a grassroots organization that works to address the root causes of gender-based violence and advocates for improved sex ed, has found that isn’t the case.

The group has said it discovered through a 2018 public records request that 70% of CPS schools weren’t properly implementing the existing sex ed requirements, with schools that serve majority Black and Brown students disproportionately falling short.

Healing to Action also criticized CPS’ new sex ed policy in December, saying it doesn’t do enough to ensure qualified educators are teaching sexual health and doesn’t provide parents with enough resources to have conversations with their children at home. Teachers now will be required to undergo only 90 minutes of training to earn a four-year certificate for sex ed. They previously needed to participate in a six- to eight-hour training session.

Serrano, a parent advocate working with Healing to Action, said education and communication have to come before condom availability. She only knew about the new program because of her advocacy work but has heard no communication from CPS as a parent.

“My question is, ‘Oh my God, how is it that CPS wants to give condoms to kids?’” Serrano asked in Spanish. “They are 10 years old, 11, 12. They are kids. So why is CPS thinking about providing condoms? Why not provide them information, and at the end give them the resource of a condom when they are prepared to use those resources they want to provide. For me, this isn’t the best option. They are doing things backwards.”

Serrano said parents in her Little Village neighborhood may be shocked to find out about the condom program because they have very little information and their kids aren’t all getting quality sex ed.

“Why not educate us as parents? In my case I come from Mexico, it is taboo for [kids to] talk to parents about these topics. In communities that are majority Latino, we are not prepared to talk about these topics with our kids.”

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