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AIDS Threat Providing Impetus for Sex-Education Mandates

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Rising concern over the AIDS epidemic is prompting some state school boards to consider actions that have long been anathema to them: telling local districts what should be in their curriculum, and requiring coursework in human sexuality.

In Rhode Island, for example, a state whose percentage of Roman Catholic residents--65 percent--is the nation's highest, the Board of Regents had twice rejected proposals to require "family life'' education in the schools.

But, in April, it approved sweeping mandates for both sex- and AIDS-education classes.

Likewise, the Kansas Board of Education last month overcame its traditional aversion to state interference--and the pressure of a lobbying campaign--to approve a proposal requiring sex education, including instruction on AIDS, in all public schools.

"We've always been opposed to mandates,'' an official of the Kansas board said. "But we also believe that this is a problem that can't be ignored.''

With nearly 36,000 reported cases of acquired immune deficiency syndrome nationwide, more and more state education officials are coming to the same conclusion.

Joining Kansas and Rhode Island, the Pennsylvania Board of Education voted on May 14 to mandate AIDS-prevention instruction in all public schools--and at all grade levels--beginning in the fall.

And in Maryland, which already makes sex education a required offering in the public schools, health educators are considering whether to ask the state board to extend the mandate to include AIDS instruction as well.

According to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, eight additional states are currently weighing mandates for sex education. In many of those, said Susan Newcomer, director of education for the organization, anxiety over AIDS has been the impetus for the proposals.

"I think the AIDS crisis has put all of this on the front line,'' said Edward T. Costa, director of the division of school support services in the Rhode Island department of education.

Rhode Island's Mandate

In the case of Rhode Island, Mr. Costa said, the state board's change of heart on the issue of sex education was prompted, in part, by Gov. Edward DiPrete. While attending a National Governors' Association conference in February, the Republican chief executive proposed that the governors recommend that all states require AIDS education. His strong position, Mr. Costa said, came as a surprise to education officials back home.

"The Governor came out, and everyone said, 'Thou shalt do it,'' Mr. Costa said.

The board's sudden turnaround is remarkable, Mr. Costa and others said, in light of the state's heavily Catholic population. In some other communities around the country, most notably New York City, efforts to mandate sex education have met with strong opposition from Catholic groups. (See Education Week, Dec. 17, 1986.)

"The Governor and his wife are Catholic,'' Mr. Costa noted. "And while they believe that sex education belongs in the home and the church, they also know that most parents aren't doing it.''

The new regulations adopted by the board say that students in kindergarten through 12th grade should be taught about AIDS beginning this fall, provided that such instruction stresses that sex should take place only within marriage--and provided that local school officials involve their communities in decisionmaking on what to teach and how to teach it.

Family-life education, scheduled to be taught in all schools at all grade levels by September 1988, must include the same emphasis under the mandate.

'A First-Line Defense'

"What prompted our decision was a concern about AIDS and also about teen-age pregnancy,'' said Robert J. Clemons, a member of the Kansas Board of Education. "Education is the first-line defense against AIDS and teen-age pregnancy.''

According to Sharon Freden, assistant commissioner of education services in the Kansas education department, as of February, 56 cases of AIDS had been reported in the state. In 1980, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 10.1 percent of all 15-to-19-year-old females in the state became pregnant.

Board members were alarmed, Mr. Clemons said, when they learned, while deliberating on the controversial proposal, that only about half of the districts in the state had been providing some form of instruction on human sexuality--despite the fact that the state has provided sex-education guidelines since the 1970's.

"They've had the opportunity to do things, and they haven't been done,'' Mr. Clemons said. Under the new regulations, schools that fail to begin teaching about human sexuality and AIDS by September 1988 stand to lose their state accreditation.

The issue has been the most controversial matter to come before the board this year, prompting hundreds of letters and telephone calls to board members and opposition from such groups as Kansas Right to Life. And, on a board that requires six votes for a measure to pass, the mandate barely won by a 6-to-4 tally.

Ms. Freden said the "greatest concern'' of the dissenting members was that the state might be pre-empting the right of local school officials to determine such matters. But even the Kansas Association of School Boards, an organization that has long opposed any state mandate on curriculum, reluctantly supported the board's decision and formed a committee early on to help local boards comply.

"We believe this is a matter that can't be ignored,'' said Rodney Lake, a spokesman for the group.

'Sex and Death'

"There are a lot of people of good will--and I think this is the case in Kansas--that are saying, 'Now we're going to do it, and, if we're going to do it, we might as well do it well,'' Ms. Newcomer of Planned Parenthood said.

But she said she also had the "unpleasant feeling that a lot of folks want to use this as an opportunity to equate sex and death.''

She and other longtime proponents of sex education said that the attention given to the subject by the AIDS epidemic represents a "double-edged sword.'' While it is encouraging that more states are requiring such instruction, they said, they also have fears that it will be presented in a context that instills negative feelings about sex.

"We have to tell people that sex can be risky, but we also have to maintain that sex is a joyous part of life,'' Ms. Newcomer said.

Nevertheless, the boost given to sex-education efforts by the epidemic is almost palpable, she said. During most of this decade, only Maryland, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia have required that schools teach about human sexuality. So far this year, two additional states have followed suit, and, among the eight states considering requiring sex education, such proposals are reportedly close to passage in several.

"If it doesn't pass this year, it's just because it's too late in the year,'' Ann Slater, a health-education consultant to the South Carolina education department, said of a bill pending in the state legislature to require schools to provide comprehensive health education, including family-life instruction, as early as the 6th grade.

The proposal came out of a task force on teen-age pregnancy created by former Gov. Richard Riley out of concern for the state's high infant-mortality rate. Many of the infant deaths were babies born to teen-aged mothers.

While the Governor's influence and the infant-mortality problem landed the proposal in the legislature, Ms. Slater said, the AIDS epidemic "may be what pushes it over.''

While some states are seeking to place AIDS instruction within the overall context of sexuality education, however, Pennsylvania school officials chose to separate the two.

Different Contexts

The regulation adopted last month by the state board is specific to AIDS. It requires the state's 501 school districts to begin teaching about AIDS in their elementary, junior high, and high schools by the fall. As with the mandates in Kansas and Rhode Island, local school boards will determine the curricular content. In addition, parents may request that their children be excused from the classes.

"We really didn't think that many of our districts were instructing students about AIDS,'' said Jeffery Grotsky, executive director of the state board.

Sexuality education, in contrast, is not required in Pennsylvania.

"In a lot of places, that's the approach they're taking,'' said Anne Welbourne-Moglia, director of the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States. "They're not wanting to complicate it and make it a political problem, and that's O.K., too.''

She noted, however, that some educators have raised questions about the effectiveness of such an approach.

"How the hell can you talk about AIDS without talking about sex?'' asked Mr. Costa of Rhode Island, who lobbied to include sex education in the Board of Regents' package of mandates.

Waiting for Federal Guidance

Pennsylvania's actions, though made independently, mirrored the recommendations issued in March by the National Association of State Boards of Education.

In a policy statement mailed to the chairmen of its member boards, NASBE asked the boards to "require instruction on AIDS, including a full range of preventative measures that youngsters can employ to avoid contracting the disease.'' The "full range of measures'' can be interpreted to mean teaching about condom use, a spokesman said.

Most states, however, are proceeding more slowly on mandates for AIDS education.

"The need is so great, and the Surgeon General has articulated it so well, that school districts are going to respond on their own,'' said Chet Bradley, a health-education supervisor in the Wisconsin education department. "I'm not a great advocate of passing a law every time a new crisis comes along.''

Though schools in his state are required to teach about sexually transmitted diseases in their health-education classes, instruction on AIDS is not specifically mentioned in those regulations, he said.

"We're waiting for criteria from the U.S. Department of Education,'' said Muriel Desrosiers, health-services consultant to New Hampshire's education department.

In response to similar requests, Secretary of Education William J. Bennett said late last month that the department was putting together a set of guidelines on AIDS education that would be "something between a one-page statement and a full-blown curriculum.''

In February, Mr. Bennett and Surgeon General C. Everett Koop issued a one-page set of principles that they said should guide the AIDS-education efforts of schools. (See Education Week, Feb. 11, 1987.)

John Walters, an aide to Mr. Bennett, said the "precise character'' of the new, more detailed guidelines has not yet been determined.

"But we hope to move quickly and have it available before the start of the school year,'' he said.

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