Condoms In The Classroom -- Life In The Age Of Aids Is Bringing A New Frankness To Sex Education

Despite the fury of conservative Christian groups and the anxiety of some parents, educators are beginning to advocate demonstration and distribution of condoms for students.

"Some kids won't need to know about safer sex for 10 years," said Beth Reis, a Seattle-King County public-health educator. "But for others, it's an immediate issue - they need to know how to have safer sex yesterday."

If Joycelyn Elders, President Clinton's nominee for U.S. surgeon general, has her way, that thinking will be the rule around the country. Elders supports school distribution of condoms, and she says abstinence-only education is ineffective in preventing AIDS.

Two years ago, a governor's task force on HIV/AIDS recommended that Washington schools distribute condoms, dental dams and lubricants.

Meetings have been held in several area districts, but so far only the Seattle School District will make condoms available to students, which it will do in high schools this spring.

Since 1988, Washington schools have been required to teach about AIDS. The state mandates that schools emphasize abstinence from sexual activity and from injection of illegal drugs as the only certain way to prevent AIDS, and to teach that latex condoms sharply reduce, but don't eliminate, the risk of infection.

Some of the more popular curricula go beyond that.

One is the Family Life and Sexual Health (FLASH) curriculum developed by the Seattle-King County Department of Public Health and a Seattle School District health official.

FLASH is a comprehensive sexual-health program that covers pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and contraception. It is used by about 20 percent of the state's districts.

The state offers its own curriculum based closely on its teaching requirements. About 40 percent of districts use that program, called KNOW.

The remaining districts incorporate the state requirements into their own teaching materials.

FLASH is more detailed than the state curriculum and is more adaptable for teens from suburb to inner city. It notes that children in cities often see used needles and condoms in parks and under bushes, and that discussion of them may be necessary as early as the fifth grade.

Like the KNOW program, FLASH teaches students not to inject illegal drugs. If a student does so anyway, both curricula teach the student not to share needles.

But FLASH goes one step further - it teaches students to use bleach to clean needles if they are sharing them.

Also unlike the state program, FLASH teaches how to use dental dams for AIDS protection during oral sex, and how condoms can be made into dental dams.

Pam Tollefsen, HIV/AIDS education supervisor in the office of state superintendent of public instruction, said bleach is not included in the KNOW lessons because needle-sharing among teenagers is not as common as sexual activity.

And no evidence exists that dental dams are an effective AIDS barrier, said Tollefsen, an author of the KNOW curriculum.

Both curricula advise the teacher to demonstrate proper use of a latex condom by rolling it over two fingers. Lessons advocate use of spermicide and lubricants.

Throughout, abstinence and social skills are emphasized.

"The students spend a lot of time learning refusal skills," said Reis, also an author of FLASH.

"But if you can't discuss safer sex clinically, in a classroom, you can't discuss it with your partner."