October 27, 2015 - 8:00 PM
VERNON - Baskets of condoms could soon be coming to local high schools as way of putting protection in the hands of those who need it — no questions asked.
About 14 schools in B.C.’s Interior have free condoms available, but students have to ask for them, Vernon School District health coordinator Christine Balfour says.
“They’re in a drawer in the counsellor’s office. As a student, you would ask for one and get one. I find that to be quite a barrier,” she says.
Balfour taught sexual health in the Vernon School District for 17 years, and continues to provide educational resources as a coordinator for the Health Promoting Schools program. Looking back on her teen years, she admits she would never have asked for a condom ‘if my life depended on it, because I would never have wanted anyone to know I was sexually active.’
It’s that fear, embarrassment and awkwardness Balfour hopes can be avoided by simply providing condoms in designated areas and allowing teens to help themselves.
“Grade 9 is often when students are starting to make these decisions. As much as parents don’t want to hear that, it’s our reality,” Balfour says. “If condoms are available to students, there’s a much better chance they’re going to actually use them.”
We know not all young people in communities around the Interior are practicing safe sex. In 2014, nearly 2,000 cases of genital chlamydia were reported in the communities serviced by the Interior Health Authority, and of those, 450 cases involved youth aged 15 to 19. In the Vernon School District alone, there were 14 teen pregnancies recorded in 2012 (a significant reduction from 31 in 2008.) Research also suggests the teen pregnancy rate in the Interior Health Authority is above the provincial average; between 2008 to 2012 the rate was 4.7 per cent, compared to 2.9 per cent provincially.
In some cases, if a student is too embarrassed to ask for a condom, Balfour believes they will go ahead and have unprotected sex anyways.
“They’ll have that true teenage ideal that it will never happen to them,” Balfour says.
Balfour has support from two local schools, Vernon Secondary and Seaton Secondary, as well as the Parent Advisory Committee, and is currently awaiting a green light from the school board to launch a three-month trial run. The pilot project will have envelopes containing condoms, lubricant and a card with links to educational resources placed in the high schools, likely in the hallway outside the counsellor’s office. She notes that offering free condoms doesn’t increase sexual activity, it promotes safe sex among those individuals who have already made their minds up to engage in it.
If successful, other schools in the Interior would be encouraged to follow suit, Balfour says. The Kelowna School District, among others, is also looking at trying out the pilot project.
But accessibility to condoms is just one half of the equation, and Balfour insists educational supports must accompany the initiative. The Vernon School District cut its sexual health educator position several years ago, and since then, teaching sex ed has fallen on classroom teachers, Balfour says.
“Some teachers are good at it, some aren’t. It depends on their comfort level,” Balfour says. “We’re trying to organize a steering committee to make it more consistent, so we know what level of education everyone is getting.”
Over her 17-plus years involved in sexual health education, Balfour has noticed youth are facing pressure to have sex at an earlier age, while at the same time, becoming more bold about asking questions and getting the information they need. The bottom line, she says, is teens are going to have sex, and if they’re going to anyways, it might as well be safe sex.
Christine Balfour is heading a project to put baskets of free condoms in two Vernon high schools.
(CHARLOTTE HELSTON /InfoTel Multimedia)
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