By Dave Warner
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - There will be something new in many Philadelphia high schools when students return to class next week - free condoms.
Under a city plan, free condom dispensers will be placed in 22 of Philadelphia's 51 high schools after winter break, part of an initiative aimed at battling the spread of sexually transmitted diseases between students.
Parents who do not want their children involved in the program can opt out, school district spokesman Fernando Gallard said on Thursday.
"It's a self-service set-up so you can actually walk into the nurse's office, and there is a dispenser on the wall and you just help yourself to them," he said.
Gallard said the schools were selected for the program based on a report by the city's Health Department that showed rising rates of some sexually transmitted diseases among students.
"STD rates amongst youth in Philadelphia have been alarming, especially the increases in gonorrhea and chlamydia since early 2010," said a statement Thursday from the Health Department.
It added, however, that "as a result of the multi-faceted adolescent STD prevention campaign the epidemic seems to be waning."
Gallard said the program could eventually be expanded beyond the 22 schools.
"We're looking to see how successful the program is, and if it's successful then we will see if we can grow it," he said.
More than 400 public schools nationwide currently make condoms available to students, whether through a nurse, a counselor or other school personnel, among other methods, according to Advocates for Youth National, a Washington D.C.-based group focused on adolescent reproductive and sexual health.
Only a small number of schools - less than 10 percent - make condoms available through bowls, baskets or vending machines, it said.
(Editing by Steve Orlofsky)