Montgomery joined a number of school systems nationally, including in the neighboring District of Columbia, that have provided access to condoms to protect against disease or unwanted pregnancy.
The move is intended to help turn back a surge in chlamydia and gonorrhea, which have made double-digit increases in the suburban county.
Montgomery’s cases are at a 10-year high — with a jump nearly twice as large as statewide increases — in what the county health officer described as a public health crisis.
“This is an important first step for getting the word out to our students about the steep increase in the rate of infections and providing a resource to help keep them safer if they are sexually active,” said Jill Ortman-Fouse, a school board member who led the effort.
As classes began in Montgomery County last week, students at the high schools with clinics — Gaithersburg, Northwood, Watkins Mill and Wheaton — were able to get condoms after having a conversation with a nurse that may include a discussion about sexually transmitted infections, officials said.
Board members voted Tuesday to expand the initiative as quickly as possible across the district’s 26 high schools and alternative programs. They asked that district staff iron out an agreement about logistics by Oct. 1 with the county’s health department, which provides staff to high school health rooms and clinics.
“I don’t feel we should delay,” board member Jeanette Dixon (At Large) said at the meeting.
Board member Rebecca Smondrowski (District 2) echoed that urgency and noted that students would have to ask for condoms and that the system would not randomly distribute them. She said the policy helps schools teach about sexually transmitted diseases and protect students.
“It is critical that we step in here at this moment in time,” she said.
Many in Montgomery expected controversy to flare after the idea of offering condoms was pressed by Ortman-Fouse (At Large) and County Council member George Leventhal (D-At Large) just before the school year started.
But several district officials said relatively few objections were raised in emails or phone calls.
“I think a lot of people thought we already had condoms in our high schools,” Ortman-Fouse said. “This is not a new concept. I think a lot of people have a hard time believing we have not done more by now.”
The problem came to public attention over the summer, when Travis Gayles, the county’s chief of public health services, spotlighted large increases in sexually transmitted infections and the toll on young people. He said the rising numbers mirror national trends.
Chlamydia cases countywide climbed 17.5 percent from 2016 to 2017, and gonorrhea rose 29 percent, according to health officials. Those one-year jumps were nearly twice as high as the state’s increases.
More than 900 of those who developed chlamydia last year were ages 15 to 19, along with nearly 130 who developed gonorrhea.
As Ortman-Fouse and Leventhal raised the issue, they noted that condoms are available at schools in Baltimore and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, in Dorchester County. They asked for a feasibility study about making condoms available in Montgomery’s middle schools. But that proposal was not part of the board’s action Tuesday.
The elected officials pointed to research showing that offering condoms along with educational efforts leads to a decrease in sexual activity.
Some in Montgomery said they would like to make access easier over time — maybe placing a basket of condoms on a clinic counter, next to materials describing the risks associated with sexually transmitted diseases. Others disagree, suggesting it is important to engage students in discussion.
Jack Smith, the county’s superintendent of schools, said Tuesday that no one has “heartburn” about offering condoms, “but we do need some clear guidelines about what can and can’t happen across the school building.”
Condoms are widely available at high schools in the District of Columbia — given out in clinics and by teachers who get training and by students designated as peer educators.
The cost of the Montgomery initiative is unclear, but the county health department will partly rely on a supply of condoms the state provides — 4,000 a month. If more are needed, the cost may be relatively modest. Health department spokeswoman Mary Anderson said she heard an estimated price of less than $90 per 1,000 condoms.