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Fla. School's Health Fair Offers Free Tests for AIDS Virus

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Fort Myers, Fla.

Riverdale High School students streamed into their auditorium here last week to participate in what has become a tradition in this southwest-Florida school: free human-immunodeficiency tests.

The suburban high school made headlines two years ago when it became the only school in the country to offer its students the opportunity to be tested for H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, at a campus health fair.

Soon, Riverdale will no longer be the maverick in school-based AIDS prevention. Three additional Lee County high schools plan to offer H.I.V. tests at their health fairs this year, and school officials say educators from other states have also expressed interest in the idea.

Despite concerns about parental notification, explicit sexual counseling, and student confidentiality, the Lee County school board voted last spring to extend the pilot project and allow any high school in the county to offer the test.

"We didn't make this decision lightly,'' said Margaret A. Sirianni, the chairwoman of the school board, who attended the fair last week.

"We hope that, with this test, we can change behavior and make the students more aware of the risks they're taking,'' she said.

In Florida, the number of reported AIDS cases among people under age 30 is four times the national average, while the under-30 AIDS rate in Lee County is five times the national average, according to Robert Bobo, the director of education for the Lee County AIDS Task Force, which conducted the H.I.V. tests for Riverdale.

Since the virus has an incubation period of at least five years, he noted, most young adults diagnosed with the disease were probably infected during their adolescence.

"What we want to accomplish here is the prevention of a disease and to impart as much information as possible,'' said Mark M. Geisler, the task force's executive director.

Three-Part Strategy

The H.I.V. testing is only part of a three-part approach to fighting the disease. Students receive AIDS education in their freshman health classes, and people with AIDS lead classroom discussions on safe sex. H.I.V. testing and counseling at the annual health fair is the final phase of the program.

At the one-day fair, all of Riverdale's students had access to the information booths set up by 15 health organizations, such as the American Cancer Society.

But only juniors and seniors with permission slips signed bytheir parents were allowed in the auditorium where health workers conducted tuberculosis, cholesterol, glucose, and H.I.V. testing and counseling.

Under Florida law, anyone over age 12 can get tested for H.I.V. without parental approval. But school policy requires permission slips for students for any invasive testing.

To insure confidentiality, the school requires that H.I.V. tests be given in private dressing rooms and classrooms. Whether they took the test or not, all students in the testing area left with a bandage and cotton ball on their arm so that no one would know who had been tested.

The students who were tested will receive their results this week from one of the task force's 11 counselors.

Most of the more than 300 students who participated in the fair seemed pleased to have the opportunity to get tested for H.I.V. at their school.

"Many students feel safer [taking the test] at school because they don't go it alone,'' said Laurie Scott, a senior.

A Difficult Decision

Making the decision to get tested is difficult for many students, said Jamie Malmstead, a 10th grader who said she regretted that sophomores were not eligible for the test.

"It's hard for a teenager to hear if you are going to live or die,'' she said. "But what people don't think about is if they are sleeping with other people and might be endangering their lives.''

Convenience is another factor, since the nearest health clinic is 20 miles away.

"Some people don't get tested because they don't have a car,'' said Jacob Mast, a 17-year-old senior who pointed to the suburban sprawl of highways and fields surrounding the school.

There is little public transportation for students to get to a health clinic, he said.

Parents Divided

A group of Lee County parents continues to object to Riverdale's H.I.V.-testing program and the expansion of the practice to other schools in the county.

Some parents fear that a student who tests negative might develop a "false sense of security'' and become promiscuous.

"Without proper education to help them understand, we may be encouraging kids who test negative to have sex,'' said Darlene Jursinski, a parent and former chairwoman of the Lee County parent-advisory council.

Ms. Jursinski also charged that while student confidentiality is guarded by school administrators, young people will tell each other the results anyway.

If a youngster tested positive and became distraught, she added, there would not be a support system capable of attending to his or her needs.

"A child who finds out he is H.I.V. positive would be devastated,'' Ms. Jursinski said. "You're looking at a potential suicide.''

But Mr. Geisler of the AIDS task force said the counselors would be available to give support to students before and after the test is given.

Other parents support the school's program.

Joyce A. Gregory, a vice-chairwoman of the parent-teacher-student association and the mother of two students at Riverdale, said she thinks the H.I.V. program is necessary because it helps educate students on how to protect themselves.

"If it stops one person down the road from getting AIDS, it's worth it,'' she said.

Beginning of a Trend

Robert Durham, the principal at Riverdale, said he expects that H.I.V. testing will soon become commonplace in public schools around the country.

School officials from San Antonio to Buffalo, N.Y., have already made inquiries about setting up similar programs, Mr. Durham said.

"We as educators have an opportunity and an obligation to provide all the information we can about AIDS,'' he said. "Anything we can do to give kids the information to make better decisions, the better off we all are.''

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