THE push to teach youths how to avoid AIDS is changing the face of traditional sex education in schools across the United States.
Three years ago, no states required AIDS education. Today, 33 states do and the rest encourage it. More and more school districts have incorporated education on AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) into sexuality education, health, family life, and biology classes - even social studies. Many new teaching tools - pamphlets, videos, and even comic books - are being disseminated. And frank discussion about sexual practices and condoms as protection against disease, which would have been unthinkable in younger grades only a few years ago, is becoming common.
More states now mandate AIDS education than sex education, and according to a national study, 80 percent of sex education money is spent on AIDS education. While only 1 percent of AIDS cases involve adolescents, many public health officials say teenagers are increasingly at risk of becoming infected, because of their experimentation with drugs and sex. Twenty percent of all AIDS cases involve people in their 20s; because of the long incubation period for the AIDS virus, many believe those people contracted the disease in their teens.
Since 1981, more than 128,000 cases of AIDS have been reported in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the lead federal agency for AIDS prevention. The CDC estimates that as many as 1.5 million Americans may be infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which researchers say causes AIDS.
Schools have found themselves on the front lines of educating youth about the disease. A recent General Accounting Office (GAO) report finds that two-thirds of all school districts require AIDS prevention education in some grades, but that teachers lack sufficient training to give such education. It also found that the subject received the least attention in the upper grades, when sexual activity is deemed most likely.
A National School Boards Association survey of AIDS education in 332 school districts found that 14 percent first discussed condoms in elementary school, 57 percent in the middle schools, and 28 percent in high schools.
In the San Francisco School District children as young as kindergarten are taught about AIDS, but at that level the focus is to relieve fears of having a classmate who has been diagnosed as having the disease, says Beverly Bradley, supervisor for the health programs office of the San Francisco school district. "We have lessons designed to be taught in context of social studies, like other epidemics in the past," Dr. Bradley says.
Some observers say that the push to educate young people about AIDS has overshadowed education about pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Others are concerned that the focus of AIDS education is in some respects too negative.
"The first time kids hear about sex, it's linked with death," says …