Teaching About AIDS

In search for ways to help youths change risky behavior, some experts promote greater student input into programs

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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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.

Peggy Brick, director of education for the Center for Family Life Education of Planned Parenthood in New Jersey, recommends that educators get the students to come up with solutions to the STD and AIDS epidemics. ``We think we need to involve students in solving the problem. Teachers have little time - usually it's sandwiched between alcohol prevention and drug prevention.''

Haffner advises a more behavior-based approach: ``Talk to kids about how do you decide to have sex; discuss condom use; help them practice how to refuse.'' In Mill Valley, few towns away from Larkspur, a Tamalpais Union High School student organized an AIDS Awareness Week in response to the death of beloved history teacher Chuck Smith, which was attributed to AIDS. For many students, Mr. Smith's death and the AIDS Awareness Week did what all the classroom information and media coverage hadn't: got them really thinking about changing risky behavior.

Tolan Clark, a junior who has taken classes in peer education at an AIDS organization along with school nurses, organized the awareness week.

``At school I used to put up notices on the bulletin board about speakers, but people weren't interested,'' says Ms. Clark. ``After Mr. Smith died,'' people became interested and ``there was a lot to do.''

Student Tracy Rhodes says: ``Before he died, I had no clue. Once he did, I wanted to know everything. I don't want anyone to go through that.''

Over the span of a week, a different period each day was set aside for listening to speakers. Ms. Clark and the nurses invited a representative of the health department, several gay speakers, some diagnosed as having the AIDS virus, and a young heterosexual man who said he had contracted the virus from a female partner.

``It was better than hearing, ``The three ways you get AIDS are ... blah, blah, blah,'' said student Cydnea Skaggs.

For students at both these schools, the personal involvement in learning about the disease seemed to change their thinking.

``It made me think about what goes on,'' said Andrew Berkeley. ``Should I jump into this and follow the romance and risk disease or be careful?''

``We're not going to be sleeping around like people did in the '60s,'' said Finuala Bourke, a graduate of Redwood, who worked on the play.

Second of two articles. The first appeared Wednesday, June 6.

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