Democratic mayoral nominee Sharon Pratt Dixon's stand this week in support of distributing condoms to students in the D.C. public schools without parental consent has rekindled a debate that has divided parents, school officials and clergy members.
Dixon told a gay activists group Wednesday that she supported a plan being implemented in New York City that would prescribe contraceptives to students in high schools and junior high schools, provided the students receive instruction on human reproduction and safe sex practices.
"I'm not certain it will help," the Rev. Ernest R. Gibson, pastor of First Rising Mount Zion Baptist Church, said yesterday, voicing the concern of some area clergy. "I think it will encourage the sex act without the condom."
Others in Washington's generally conservative religious community said their fears the plan would encourage premarital sex were tempered by the reality of a soaring rate of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases among District teenagers.
"I think we should be pragmatic," said the Rev. Smallwood Williams, pastor of Bible Way Church. "I wouldn't have a problem issuing condoms, provided that proper teaching is going along with it."
"I believe before any type of decision as far as the distribution of condoms to students is made, it should be discussed in a public hearing with parents," said school board member Wilma R. Harvey (Ward 1).
"I do believe we live in a town where our children should be versed in the hazards involved in our society," Harvey said. "The AIDS epidemic is a real thing in our community."
School board member Bob Boyd (Ward 6) said, "I'm personally sympathetic with Sharon Pratt Dixon's views, as long as it's part of a comprehensive overall educational program."
The D.C. school board first confronted the issue two years ago when it voted to open a health clinic that would prescribe contraceptives to students at Ballou High School in Southeast, where the teenage pregnancy rate was the highest. But the move sharply divided the board, and since then the clinic has counseled students on birth control and where to obtain birth control devices, but has not dispensed contraceptives.
"I don't think we'll be teaching our young people to be responsible. We'll be teaching them to be irresponsible," school board member R. David Hall (Ward 2) said at the time of the vote.
Health officials in Baltimore said this week they quietly decided to distribute condoms in seven city schools to combat growing rates of teenage pregnancies as well as venereal disease. They have been issuing prescriptions in city health clinics to students since 1985, but the students had to get the prescriptions filled elsewhere.
The school board in Talbot County, a rural county of 30,000 people on Maryland's Eastern Shore, is considering handing out condoms in a program similar to New York's. The board is expected to vote on the issue Wednesday.
During an appearance at a Gertrude Stein Democratic Club forum, Dixon expressed support for the plan enacted in September by the New York City school district that provides for distribution of condoms within the school system.
However, she said that "by no means am I saying to hand them out in the classroom." She said she believes the government has a responsibility to its youth "to educate them on the reproductive system, to educate them on safe sex and to provide them with options when you are dealing with a life-and-death issue."
Republican mayoral candidate Maurice T. Turner Jr. said yesterday that he preferred to place more emphasis on education. When asked if he supported distributing condoms to students, he said: "I don't know about that. If it came down to preventing the spread of AIDS, I would be amenable to that."
New York officials were concerned that while only 3 percent of the nation's 13- to 21-year-olds lived in the city, that same age group accounted for 20 percent of the nation's AIDS cases.
In Washington, the number of syphilis cases has nearly quadrupled since 1985, rivaling rates of the poorest Third World countries, health officials said.
Syphilis cases could reach 2,600 this year alone, health officials said.
Staff writer Eugene L. Meyer contributed to this report.