AIDS Education Will Be Billings' New Full-Time Job
As Judith A. Billings prepares to step down from her post as Washington state's top school official, she faces an even bigger education job.
Ms. Billings shocked educators and state residents last January when she announced that she had contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
In her two full terms as Washington's superintendent of public instruction, Ms. Billings has tackled efforts to coordinate family and child policies and worked to create a performance-based testing system.
Now, she intends to use her high profile to speak out on AIDS education issues.
Her scheduling book is already nearly full: In addition to serving on one statewide and three national HIV/AIDS councils, she will continue to speak out on AIDS education in conferences and classrooms around the country.
"There are reasons that things happen," the 56-year-old superintendent said in a telephone interview last week. "We are given opportunities that maybe are not necessarily what we choose, but allow us to do some very positive things."
She believes she was exposed to the deadly virus as long as 15 years ago when undergoing artificial insemination using donor sperm.
Doctors discovered that she had the human immunodeficiency virus nearly two years ago after she suffered a series of bronchial infections. ("Wash. Schools Chief Reveals She Has AIDS Virus," Jan. 24, 1996.)
Ms. Billings says her health is good now, and she feels energetic.
After leaving her superintendent's duties next month, she will continue to serve on the President's Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, the Advisory Committee on HIV and STD Prevention for the Atlanta-based federal Centers for Disease Control, the board of trustees for the Washington, D.C.-based National AIDS Fund, and the Washington state Governor's Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. Each of the groups meets several times a year and will involve speaking opportunities and work on various committees.
Ms. Billings will also continue to spend time working with schools on AIDS education. Specifically, she said she wants to work on giving teachers proper training in AIDS education and keeping schools up to date on the latest information. "One of the daunting things about AIDS education is that things are changing so fast," she said.
When she visits schools, she will also reinforce a constant theme of her AIDS education message: Students who are given information in a reasonable and accurate manner will be able to handle it.
On a recent visit she made to a 6th grade class in Seattle, Ms. Billings said, students were concerned and serious about the topic. There were no signs of "tee-heeing" or other indications that the students were too immature to understand straight talk on sex education.
Students, Ms. Billings added, seem to be making a common plea: "Don't stand around and discuss what you think we ought to or ought not hear. Tell it to us straightforwardly, and we can handle that."
"She's more than an AIDS educator--as a person with HIV herself, she brings a unique experience," said Carlos Vega, the director of the HIV Prevention/Healthy Schools Project for the National Association of State Boards of Education. Ms. Billings, Mr. Vega said, "helps build a bridge" between those who have suffered from the disease and those who have not been affected.
Although she may become known for her AIDS activism, her contributions on a variety of education issues should not go unrecognized, local educators said.
"She's tried to rally resources on the prevention side of things, whether it be reading, alcohol abuse, or any social or health issues that impact children," said Gene Sharatt, the superintendent of the North Central Educational Service District in Wenatchee, Wash. "I think that's very cost-effective."
Ms. Billings said she would like to remain involved in bigger school-policy debates, such as helping the state implement its performance tests.
And then there are always future political prospects: This year, there was some speculation about whether she would run for Congress, which she decided against. Running for office again is still a possibility, she said.
But for now, she hopes to teach an education school course on politics, which she considers essential for educators.
"Being very keenly aware of what's happening in the political realm is really essential if one is going to make sure that the resources are there for education," she said.