AIDS Education Found Less Likely For Older Students

By Jessica Portner — November 25, 1992 4 min read

Older students, who are at a greater risk for AIDS infection, are only half as likely as younger students to learn about the disease in the classroom, according to a survey of school district policies and practices released last week.

“When students are most likely to engage in risk behavior, H.I.V. and health education are least likely to be required,’' says the report, which was prepared by the Centers for Disease Control and several education associations.

The instructional requirements for courses on health and the human immunodeficiency virus peak at 7th grade, the report indicates, with 83 percent of participating school districts requiring H.I.V. education at that level. But the requirements drop sharply after 10th grade, with only 37 percent of districts mandating programs for 12th graders.

The survey looked at the prevalence of H.I.V.- and health-education curricula in kindergarten through 12th grade in 1,679 schools across the country.

Nearly 67 percent of the schools required some type of H.I.V. education in their curriculum, the survey found. Urban districts, with enrollments of more than 10,000 students, were more likely than rural districts to offer the courses.

Most schools presented AIDS information during health class rather than in the context of other subjects, says the study, which appears in the November issue of the Journal of School Health.

An Inadequate System

The authors of the report warned that the current system of educating adolescents about the risks of contracting the disease is clearly inadequate to dealing with the seriousness of the problem.

Recent statistics show that one-fifth of Americans diagnosed with AIDS are in their 20’s.

“There has to be some effort to integrate AIDS education in other subjects, in sociology and history classes, to look at the attitudinal issues,’' said Brenda Greene, the AIDS-education manager for the National School Boards Association and an author of the report.

The results have been surprising to many. “I can’t believe [schools] would not include it in the curriculum,’' said Richard D. Miller, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

Mr. Miller speculated that the apparent scarcity of courses in high school may be because AIDS information is provided in a number of different courses, and so did not show up in the survey.

Others argued that teaching about AIDS prevention in the later grades is repetitive. “Schools try to offer programs as soon as possible because children can become infected early,’' said Gary Marx, a spokesman for the A.A.S.A. “Maybe by the 12th grade they’ve already learned the lessons.’'

“I’d be more alarmed if the lessons were not taught early,’' Mr. Marx added.

Some researchers suggested that the reason for the steep drop may be the crowded high school curriculum.

“There are other competing requirements they need to graduate,’' said Deborah Holtzman, a C.D.C. official and one of the authors of the study.

But scheduling problems are an inadequate explanation for cutting AIDS education from the curriculum, other experts maintained.

“The ramifications [of fewer courses] are enormous,’' said David Eng, an adolescent-health specialist for the New York-based Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which provides assistance to AIDS educators.

Political Obstacles Seen

Politics often plays a role in limiting access to AIDS-education materials, Mr. Eng contended.

“The schools are constantly stymied by people who have moral judgments, and so we’re not giving life-saving information,’' he said.

Another reason that the number of courses is lower at the high school level is that the upper grades require a more advanced level of training for teachers, who must master a certain amount of information to teach responsibly, AIDS-education experts said.

The survey reported that nearly one-fourth of school personnel received no AIDS-education training.

“One of the dynamics is that when people get older, it’s harder to teach because they have more questions,’' said Terri Lewis, the director of the AIDS and Adolescents Network of New York, which runs AIDS-education programs in New York City schools.

Schools frequently lack the resources to provide the training, Ms. Lewis noted.

Disseminated Selectively

When it is taught, AIDS information is disseminated selectively, the survey revealed. While 70 percent of the schools require AIDS education for learning-disabled students, fewer than half do so for students with other disabilities.

Most AIDS programs emphasize communications skills and the effects of drugs and alcohol on a person’s judgment, the report says. The use of condoms, how to avoid sex, and the sharing of needles were less likely to be topics of discussion.

Other research has shown that AIDS- and sex-education courses have been effective in reducing sexual activity and have helped to increase the use of condoms.

“The biggest fight against AIDS education has been the groups that say if you teach students about sex and AIDS, then it will increase sexual activity. But we’ve found the opposite,’' said Leighton Ku, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute, which conducted a survey in 1988 on the impact of AIDS education on adolescent males’ sexual behavior.

“If we were teaching them about driver’s education, we would have to teach them how to avoid accidents, as well as how to wear seat belts,’' Mr. Ku observed.

Despite the smaller number of courses in the higher grades, the number of high school students who have received AIDS education has risen in the past few years, according to a separate C.D.C. report released last week.

The report shows 83 percent of high school students reporting having received AIDS education in school, compared with 54 percent in 1989.

The figures do not contradict the other study, since the students may have received their instruction in earlier grades.

A version of this article appeared in the November 25, 1992 edition of Education Week as AIDS Education Found Less Likely For Older Students