NEW YORK, DEC. 5 -- Schools Chancellor Joseph Fernandez proposed to the Board of Education today a groundbreaking AIDS-education plan that includes making condoms available free to students in all public high schools, even without parental consent.
"We are sitting on a ticking time bomb," Fernandez told the seven board members, referring to AIDS cases among adolescents. "I think a lot of people are watching us to see what we're going to do."
If the board approves the plan despite militant opposition from church and community groups, it likely would be the nation's most sweeping AIDS-education initiative. While some schools with health clinics distribute condoms, no other school system has authorized making condoms available on an unlimited basis, school district officials here said. The board is expected to vote on or before Jan. 5.
Dr. Karen Hein of the Albert Einstein Medical Center in the Bronx told the board today that New York City "is the leader in the nation for AIDS cases among adolescents." She showed a chart documenting a leap from 10 AIDS cases in 1983 to 111 in 1988 among New York youths ages 12 to 21.
She added that those numbers are deceptively low because they account only for people who actually have AIDS, which can take five to 10 years to develop. They do not include those who have tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, or are unaware that they carry the virus.
Some school board members bristled at the slide presentation. "There are statistics, and there are statistics," said Michael Petrides, who represents Staten Island and said he opposes the condom plan.
Only Petrides and Irene Impellizzeri, representing Brooklyn, appear firmly antagonistic toward Fernandez's proposal. Approval would end a longstanding policy not to have birth-control devices available on campus, said James Vlasto, a spokesman for Fernandez.
By far the most controversial step in the proposal would have each school select volunteers, usually one male and one female faculty or staff member, to distribute condoms on campus during school hours. These volunteers would be trained in AIDS education at school district headquarters but not be required to offer counseling along with the condoms.
"We're not going to put a student in a situation where they have to go get counseling in order to get a condom," Fernandez said today. "That takes the heart out of the plan."
The proposal also calls for updating the AIDS curriculum, mandating AIDS education from kindergarten through sixth grade and expanding the chancellor's advisory council on AIDS education to include students and AIDS patients.
The proposal by Fernandez, who is nearing completion of his first year as chancellor, has created an uproar in some quarters, making administrators nervous about implementing it.
"In certain communities where people because of religious reasons or other reasons are opposed to this, we don't want our principals to be caught between the chancellor's regulations and serious problems that might develop in the community," said Neil Lefkowitz, director of field operations for the Council of Supervisors and Administrators, the principals' union.
Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, said, "We don't think it is right to implicitly endorse the idea of sexual activity among our teenagers. By distributing condoms, I think that's what you're doing, or at least implying . . . that we think this behavior is okay."
Several Catholic, Jewish, Greek and Russian Orthodox and Protestant churches -- the latter including some predominantly black, inner-city congregations -- recently formed the Coalition of Concerned Clergy to lobby against the proposal.
Students leaving Washington Irving High School in Manhattan today had heard about the condom controversy and expressed an array of opinions about it.
"Do you know how many girls are walking in here pregnant?" asked Tamessa Lynah, 16. "If there were condoms in here, they wouldn't be, and they'd be protected from diseases too."
Her friend, Elizabeth Taylor, 17, disagreed. "If you want condoms, you should have the confidence to ask your parents for it. It's better that your parents know what you're doing than someone in school because, if you get pregnant, who is going to help you? Your parents."
Asked whether students would be comfortable asking a teacher for a condom, Frank Gifford, 16, said, "Some students would be embarrassed. You have to see that teacher every day. You don't have to see the drugstore clerk every day."