The study confirms earlier research on the programs developed in the 1990s to stem the spread of HIV and reduce teen pregnancy. It found that students in high schools with condom programs were more likely to use condoms, though students in other high schools were more likely to use other forms of birth control.
Some conservative groups have staunchly opposed such programs, saying they send the wrong message and in effect encourage and enable teens to have sex before marriage.
Researchers writing in the American Journal of Public Health, examined high schools in Massachusetts, where the state Department of Education encouraged schools to develop condom programs. In most cases, the condoms were available from the school nurse or from other personnel such as a gym teacher.
The study took a sample of all high schools, comparing students at nine schools that made condoms available with those at 50 schools that did not. The data came from a 1995 survey of students' sexual behavior.
They found students in schools with condom programs were slightly less likely to report having had sexual intercourse than those at other schools. Specifically, 49 percent of students at non-condom schools reported having ever had sex, compared with 42 percent of those at schools with condoms available.
"The concerns of the small minority of parents who oppose providing condoms or related instruction in schools were not substantiated," wrote lead author Susan M. Blake and her colleagues at George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.
Among teens who were sexually active, more at schools where condoms were available said they used condoms the last time they had sex: 66 percent vs. 49 percent at non-condom schools. The students at non-condom schools were more likely to have used other birth control.
Overall, there was no difference in pregnancy rates among students.
The study also found that schools offering condoms were also more likely to teach students how to use them properly. Students at condom schools also were more likely to have received information about HIV and AIDS.
Curiously, though, the study found that students at schools with condom programs were no more likely than others to say that condoms were easily available, even though they were more likely to use them.
Researchers said it may not have been that making condoms available prompted teens to use them, but that communities that were likely to adopt the programs were also more likely to support condom use to begin with.
The study did not compare teenage sexual behavior before and after condom programs were instituted, researchers note, so the study does not prove that the program changed anyone's behavior.
The data on teen sexual behavior came from the 1995 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey. It included interviews with 4,166 students. About one in five of them were enrolled in a school with a condom availability program.