Marin County has just been shaken by a controversy that has affected most high school districts around the country: the distribution of condoms to students. As a public policy matter, this debate may have less to do with sex, or even morality, than with the struggle to keep our society together.
It is not an easy policy for school officials to handle.
On the one hand, there are serious health issues. On the other hand, condom distribution can exacerbate problems of diminishing family control and of unraveling communities, matters in which Jews have a special interest.
Studies of suburban high schools show that the majority of seniors are sexually active. The rate of sexually transmitted diseases among those high school students is already alarmingly high and rising. At the same time, the number of unmarried high school-age mothers has been rising, a considerable social problem in itself.
The "condom-availability" programs are a response to these problems. While studies show that many, if not most, teenagers will not use these birth-control and disease-control devices even if they are available, some will.
But — dare one say it? — the most effective birth control and venereal-disease-control devices are the values transmitted by strong families from one generation to another. That is as scientific a fact as you will find, proven in the laboratory of recorded human history.
Edward Shils, one of the brightest students of human history, put it this way:
"A family which incorporates into itself little of the past and, of that which it does incorporate, little of high quality, deadens its offspring; it leaves them with a scanty set of beliefs…the offspring are left to define their own standards; this means the acceptance of the norms of their most imposing coevals."
When the school tries to substitute for the family as the shaper of personal values, it weakens the authority of the family. If the school weakens the family, it will contribute more to the increase of venereal disease and unwedded motherhood among teenagers than it can counteract by distributing condoms.
Of course, the damage could be even greater. If, for example, the school weakens the authority of the family — by, among other things, a condom-distribution program that suggests that indiscriminate sexual activity is OK — it creates more violence among teenagers than it can counteract by installing metal detectors at all entrances.
But the dilemma the school officials face is that so many families are already weak. The real villains are not the schools but parents who are so indifferent or ineffective that they would rather let the schools do it. If the schools refuse to take measures– such as establishing a sex-counseling and condom-distribution program — the alternative is a dangerous vacuum.
So what are the public policy options? The schools cannot refurbish the families; the most they can do is avoid hurting them. If some sex-counseling and condom-distribution programs seem imperative, the schools must write directly to all parents — as one Marin high school is doing — and say that the school's preference is to have the students not use that program but to have the parents handle the problem instead.
Schools would express the hope that the parents would return the enclosed card saying that they, the parents, would handle such matters and that the program should not be extended to their child. Such an exclusion by parents should be scrupulously honored.
There are risks in such a reluctant public policy, but fewer than in a gleeful, wide-open school program of sex-counseling and condom distribution. Of course, this issue is only one small piece of the weak-family syndrome in America. But whatever the issue, the prescription for the schools is never to do anything that further harms the authority of families.