Teaching about AIDS in Search for Ways to Help Youths Change Risky Behavior, Some Experts Promote Greater Student Input into Programs Series: Aids and Sex Education. Part 2 of a 2-Part Series

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IN this sundrenched suburb across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, high school students are finding that teaching each other about AIDS helps them learn in a way that classroom information doesn't.

At Redwood High School, students in the school's Ensemble Theatre Company, along with an adult playwright, produced an improvisational play about AIDS called "Touch Me."

"There are enough plays that blurt out statistics," says senior Greg Kallick.

"The point of it was to make (classmates) deal with their feelings," says Gordon Brownlie, a junior.

As education about AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) becomes increasingly common in United States classrooms, some sex education experts say that the most effective methods are those which, like this play, encourage young people to find their own ways of coming to terms with the disease.

"Peers have great influence and can talk in a way that's open and not preachy," says Tim Dunn, AIDS education coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Education.

Straight facts alone are not causing young people to change their sexual behavior, sex education specialists say.

"AIDS education is being taught in assemblies in 1- to 2-hour presentations," says Debra Haffner, executive director of the Sex Information and Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS).

"We evaluate those programs and then wonder why that didn't get kids to change their behavior. The assumption is that all you have to do is tell kids about the dangers and they'll change."

Despite a decade of information about AIDS, and several years of education in schools, fear of acquiring the disease has not stopped students from engaging in unprotected sex. One indicator of that is the rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) among teens: Syphilis cases are up 60 percent since 1985, says Joe Blount, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control. And a 1988 study of more than 8,000 California teenagers found that of the 50 percent who had had intercourse, only 8.5 percent said they had stopped because of AIDS.

While adolescents only represent 1 percent AIDS cases, and most of those cases are attributed to tainted blood transfusions received years ago, 20 percent of AIDS cases are people in their 20s. Some health officials believe the youths contracted the virus in their teens. Concern that teens may be the next highly affected group has prompted 33 states to require AIDS education. …