Students at Colchester High School can obtain free condoms as part of the school’s updated sexual education program. The decision was prompted by an increase in sexually transmitted infections among Vermont’s youth, a December newsletter says.

In 2015, the state’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey found one-third of surveyed youths in Grades 6-12 were sexually active, while nearly 40 percent of respondents did not use condoms.

Moreover, about 80 percent of the state’s annually diagnosed chlamydia cases were found in people under 24 years of age, according to a 2016 memo from Harry Chen and Rebecca Holcombe, the state’s then-health commissioner and education secretary, respectively.

“To have that kind of a number is really frightening,” CHS nurse Deborah Deschamps said. “That’s kind of like, ‘Come on people we need to educate our kids.’”

CHS began providing condoms at the end of December following communication with district families and students. A grant from Planned Parenthood supplied the school with condoms and literature on sexually transmitted infections.

“We are certainly not at the forefront of this,” board chairman Mike Rogers said. “Most of the schools have already got [a condom distribution program].”

The board was initially hesitant to roll out its program until it could convey their reasoning to parents and community members, Rogers said, adding the statistics and advisory from Holcombe showed a true need.

The condoms at CHS aren’t placed in a large bowl à la college settings, but Deschamps said students needn’t sign in or ask for them. They’re available in her office, from school social workers and guidance counselors, and Deschamps is happy to answer students’ questions about their use, she said.

The school’s sexual health education course helps dispel “urban legend” and provides students with a safe space and accurate information about intercourse, Deschamps said.

There is no evidence a robust sexual education program increases the number of sexually active youths, according to the CHS condom availability protocol. Rather, these offerings can have the opposite effect.

“Outcomes of such programs include delay in first sexual intercourse, a decrease in the number of sexual partners and an increase in condom or contraceptive use,” the protocol reads.

There is no age restriction to purchase condoms. In Vermont, the age of consent is 16, but state law permits “close in age consent” between minors ages 16 to 18.

“You would think after the AIDs crisis in the ’80s …  that we would be in a different place and have less stigma around using condoms,” Deschamps said. “But this is where we are.”

Although Deschamps doesn’t encourage students to engage in sexual intercourse, she said it’s important to prepare kids for facets of life beyond college readiness.

“You wouldn’t think about driving a car without your seatbelt on,” Deschamps said. “That’s how condoms should be; you wouldn’t think of having sex without a condom.”