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
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 Devon Davidson, project director of Viviremos, an AIDS
education project of the National Coalition of Advocates for