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Study Finds 18 States Mandate AIDS Courses

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Washington--A new national survey documents a dramatic increase in the number of states that have moved to require classroom teaching on how to avoid acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

According to the study, the number of state school boards or legislatures that have approved school aids-education mandates has more than tripled in less than six months, increasing from the five states reported last June, when a similar poll was conducted, to 18 this fall.

In addition, state education officials in 18 other states have launched less forceful aids-education initiatives that urge districts to begin teaching about the disease or recommend curricula to help them do it.

"It's a very, very big step that they're taking," said Phyllis Blaunstein, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education. She noted that educators often face heated controversy in promoting such instruction.

"But much more remains to be done," Ms. Blaunstein added.

Nasbe conducted both the new survey and the preliminary study last June.

Setting a Mandate

The sharp increase in required aids-education programs is particularly significant in light of the traditional aversion of many state officials to imposing curriculum requirements on local school districts.

"We've always been opposed to mandates," a member of the Kansas board of education said in an interview last June, after the board had voted to require sex education, including teaching on aids. "But we also believe that this is a problem that can't be ignored."

In addition to Kansas, aids-education mandates also exist now in: Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

In an effort to encourage more states to follow suit, the federal Centers for Disease Control has given nasbe a $150,000 grant to conduct a national campaign for requiring school aids instruction.

One big obstacle to more widespread teaching on aids, Ms. Blaunstein said, has been a lack of funds.

Though detailed statistics on the funding of aids-education programs were not available through the survey, the nasbe executive director said most state education departments are working to develop teaching materials, train teachers, and assist local school systems without any special funds to help them do it.

"It's a problem," conceded Gene Fitzhugh, a consultant on health and physical education for the Kentucky education department, in an interview last week. He is working to develop a family-life curriculum for that state that would include instruction on aids.

"They gave me a minimal amount of money--a couple of thousand bucks--and it's hard" to provide the needed depth with that, he said.

The survey also found that concern about aids has provided an impetus for state officials considering making sex- and health-education a required offering in schools.

For example, two states--Illinois, and Nevada--recently mandated sex education in order to provide a larger context for aids instruction.

As part of their own responses to the aids crisis, Alabama and Delaware school officials have likewise moved to force schools to develop comprehensive health-education courses that also address aids prevention.

And a sweeping mandate in Rhode Island calls for required instruction on health, sexuality, and aids in the schools.

"Aids instruction makes most sense within a good health-education program for all students," Ms. Blaunstein said. "But if schools don't have that kind of a program, they can't afford to wait until it has been developed and implemented."

In addition to telling schools they must teach about aids, 12 states and the District of Columbia have taken the additional step of setting the grade levels at which such instruction should begin. Five have chosen 7th grade, according to the survey, and one has required schools to start the teaching at the 6th-grade level.

In the remaining states, aids education is set to begin at some point during the elementary-school years.

The age range represented in the mandates illustrates the disagreement among educators over the difficult question of when children could benefit--and not be harmed by--aids instruction. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop has recommended that such instruction begin "as early as 3rd grade."

But Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, speaking at a news conference in October, said he believed children should begin to receive information on the disease "around the 7th grade."

Ms. Blaunstein said she recommended teaching about the disease in "upper elementary school," sometime between grades 4 and 6.

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