Will federal legislation leave OPRF condom distribution behind?

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KATHARINE GRAYSON

 

Before the debate over whether or not Oak Park and River Forest High School should allow the distribution of condoms gathers momentum, the discussion may be cut short - not by any ethical controversy, but by a clause included in the federal government's No Child Left Behind Act.
The NCLB Act was passed in 2001 as part of President George W. Bush's "compassionate conservative" agenda with the purpose of raising the standard of education and closing achievement gaps nationwide. 

Although the majority of the bill focuses on providing federal funding for a variety of education initiatives, buried in the general prohibitions section of the act is the stipulation that "none of the funds authorized under this Act shall be used...to operate a program of contraceptive distribution in schools."

Steve Miller, accountant for OPRF, estimated that between seven and eight percent of the school's money comes from federal funding sources, adding that OPRF keeps federal and state dollars separate.

However, even though it would be possible to avoid using federal money to fund a distribution program, Miller said he does not know if instituting the policy would cause the government to pull its funding for No Child Left Behind.

"We're unsure if the law reads that you can't [distribute condoms] if you are an entity that receives the federal funding," he said. "That was something they were still trying to determine."

In a debate that has generally centered around questions of state code, community sentiment and the role of abstinence in health education, OPRF Superintendent/Principal Susan Bridge said she was surprised to be faced with problems relating to federal legislation.

She said both administrators and members of Students for Peace and Justice, the student group that petitioned the school to change the policy, are in the process of researching the implications of the law.

Bridge said OPRF uses money from Title I of No Child Left Behind, which focuses on "improving the academic achievement of the disadvantaged," and from Title IV, which can be cited as the "Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act."

She added that this money is an important part of helping portions of the student population.  

"We don't want lose funding that will help at risk kids," she said. "We have to be careful before changing this policy."

Although this is one of the main issues the school will deal with before moving forward, school board members expressed interest in exploring the possible change at a board Policy Committee meeting two weeks ago.

Although the school board has rejected requests from students to change OPRF's long-standing policy against condom distribution at least three times in recent years, Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Jason Edgecombe said there is nothing in current school code that would prevent OPRF from allowing the distribution of contraceptives.

However, many board members felt it was important to work with community groups and parent organizations before proceeding.

"The board strongly felt community values were involved, and once we look at the threshold of what is required, it would also be important to see how parents feel," Policy Committee Chair Paul Wolfman said.

The board also discussed encouraging other Oak Park organizations that do distribute condoms, such as the Oak Park Health Department, to offer extended hours so that students would be able to go to those facilities after school.

The school may also investigate following a model similar to that of Evanston Township High School, which in conjunction with a local hospital, makes contraceptives available to students at a comprehensive health center located on campus.

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