Student group seeking to make contraception available to peers

By EVAN YOUNG

A group of local high school students wants to make affordable contraception available to their peers and, eventually, change the way sex education is handled in the classroom.

Members of Scholastic Plastic, the summer vacation brainchild of Oakville Senior High School junior Miles Larson, hope to one day distribute reduced-price condoms to teens and provide them with resources on teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and other topics related to sexuality.

However, they won’t be allowed to do so at Oakville High — or at any school in the Mehlville School District.

After a nearly monthlong effort to win formal approval for his group, Larson learned Friday that Oakville High School Principal William Scheffler had denied his application to form a non-school-sponsored club.

And despite appealing to the district’s Central Office, Superintendent Terry Noble said Monday he would uphold Scheffler’s decision.

The inspiration for Scholastic Plastic was an article written last year by Michelle Ocello for Oakville High’s student newspaper, The Prowl. Ocello — Larson’s classmate and now-fellow group officer — questioned whether condom availability programs in high schools could reduce teen pregnancies and the spread of STDs.

After some research on the subject over the summer, Larson, 17, said he became convinced they could.

“So I thought, why shouldn’t we make one at school?” Larson told the Call Saturday while awaiting word on his appeal. “And I really tried to push for this. I sort of took the article and I put it in the real world.”

Thus, Scholastic Plastic was born, and shortly after the school year began last month, Larson sent a letter to Scheffler, outlining the group’s intentions:

• “Provide factual information in relation to sexuality (including orientation), STD/STIs (sexually transmitted infections), and contraceptives.”

• “Make condoms more available to already sexually active teens by selling them at a cheap price without profit to any individual.”

• “Promote abstaining from sexual activity until marriage.”

• “Arrange activities promoting abstinence and condom use.”

• “Be available all year, as effective sex education should be.”

Larson also presented the group’s case to the Board of Education during its regular meeting last week.

But Scheffler turned down the group’s application, and wrote in a letter to Larson on Friday that Scholastic Plastic’s goals currently aren’t supported by district policy or curriculum.

“We currently have a health class with a board-approved curriculum that is responsible for that task,” Scheffler wrote regarding the group’s intent to provide information to students about sexuality. “In addition, state law imposes various regulations regarding this aspect of the curriculum …

“The second point was the sale of condoms in school. Non-curricular groups are not allowed to fund-raise at school. For these reasons your request was denied.”

Noble said that, in an appeal, he simply verifies whether a school administrator correctly followed protocol.

“I don’t rule on the actual request as much as I do the procedure the principal followed in making his ruling,” he said.

Larson said Saturday that he agreed — to a point — with Scheffler’s rationale for rejecting the group’s application.

While Scheffler stated that Scholastic Plastic couldn’t provide students with resources on sexuality because Oakville High already has a curriculum in place, Larson said the principal probably believed the group’s presence would lead to a “counter-education thing going on, like he’s teaching one thing and I’m teaching another. But I don’t really think that’d be much of a problem.”

Despite the district’s rejection of his application, Larson has indicated he will continue to promote Scholastic Plastic’s views about possible changes to the district’s high school health curriculum.

“The information provided in the mandatory health class is acceptable; however, the short time frame given to the topic of sexuality doesn’t go in depth about contraception, STIs or anything of severe importance in relation to human sexuality,” Larson told board members Sept. 17.

A half-credit health class is part of the district’s graduation requirements.

Students also must take at least seven credits worth of elective classes. Among elective courses offered by the high schools is Parenting, which is “designed to acquaint the student with the awesome responsibilities and lifestyle changes that will occur with the decision to become a parent,” according to the district’s high school course planning guide.

Larson said the board should consider either making Parenting a required course; offering students a choice between the regular health class and Parenting to achieve the required half-credit; or increasing the requirement to one whole credit of health or family and consumer science courses.

He also encouraged the board to allow free or reduced-price condom distribution through the district high schools’ nurses offices — if it objected to Scholastic Plastic doing the job.

Board members seemed impressed by Larson’s presentation last week.

His speech received a round of applause, and board member Micheal Ocello — Michelle’s father — and Connie Hurst-Bayless, assistant superintendent of curriculum, said later during the meeting that they were willing to further explore some of Larson’s curricular proposals.

And while Scholastic Plastic won’t be doing business at Mehlville schools, the group doesn’t plan to disband, Larson said.

The group’s page on the popular social-networking Web site Facebook boasts more than 150 members, and Larson says they may find other ways to provide teens with low-cost condoms.

“We’re possibly thinking about setting up lemonade stands, except, ‘condom stands,’ around the community …,” Larson told the Call. “If we were to put them in public places, outside of a local fast-food restaurant or just anywhere public enough where teens could come in easily and get out easily without spending too much money.”

He said the group would buy condoms en masse and then sell them for 50 cents apiece — considerably cheaper than the current average unit price of $1.50.

Larson contends that Scholastic Plastic likely will face opposition in the community, but says he hopes the group’s detractors will listen to their side of the story.

“I’m really unsure about the political orientation of all the people in Oakville, but from what I’ve seen, people seem to be pretty open to the idea,” he said. “I think there might be some opposition from parents because they think their student might be influenced to have sex because of our program, and I’ve looked at the evidence and through many studies … The American Academy of Pediatrics even says that basically if your child goes to school and is not sexually active, they will not become sexually active as a result of our program.

“That’s pretty much the only argument that I’ve seen, that it will increase sexual activity, and evidence has shown that argument is not true. But I really hope that parents will consider this … and we are of course open to seeing any evidence anybody else has or hearing any argument against us. And we are willing to debate that on a fair ground.”