Education

Panel Hears AIDS Victim’s Story

By Debra Viadero — March 09, 1988 3 min read
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Washington--Ryan White, the Indiana aids victim whose battle to attend school drew national attention, told a Presidential panel last week that the acceptance he found at his new school changed his life.

“For the first time in three years, we feel like we have a home and a supportive school environment,” he said in testimony before the President’s Commission on the Human Immunodeficiency Virus Epidemic.

Ryan and his family, who filed suit in 1985 to force his admission to school in Kokomo, Ind., last year moved to Cicero, 20 miles away.

By last fall, when Ryan, who is 16, began attending high school in nearby Arcadia, the school’s staff and students had already received intensive education aimed at dispelling fears about his condition.

“My life is much better now” as a result of that effort, he told the panel.

The commission, named by President Reagan last year to provide advice on federal aids policy, will issue a final report in September that includes recommendations related to aids education.

Ryan was among more than more than four dozen witnesses--including Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and Secretary of Education William J. Bennett--who testified on that subject in three days of hearings.

The commission also heard from Gov. Edward J. DiPrete of Rhode Island, state health directors, officials of national associations, members of the Congress, and health educators.

Jill Stewart, student body president at Hamilton Heights High School, where Ryan White is enrolled, also testified.

“On Ryan’s first day, student-gov4ernment leaders met him and escorted him to class and members of the football team offered to carry his books,” she recalled.

The key to that reception--which contrasted sharply with the fierce opposition Ryan’s efforts to attend school had aroused in Kokomo--was ''accurate and explicit communication and knowledge,” she said.

Ms. Stewart said the efforts began last spring, when the school provided training for teachers and custodians. Two weeks before Ryan was scheduled to begin class, state health officials presented two seminars on the disease to students.

In addition, she said, the school’s principal addressed students in each grade and talked to churches and community groups. Physical-education and health classes featured films and discussions about aids, and juniors and seniors studied the topic in science classes.

Ms. Stewart said the school also set up a receptacle into which students could put confidential questions about the disease or request individual counseling.

“We had a few parents who had called the school and said they didn’t want to send their students,” she said, “but the students told them that they understood the disease and they were going to go school.”

Ryan told the panel that he had made the honor roll, attended ball games, and was learning to drive a car--"all because the kids and staff at Hamilton Heights educated themselves.”

Describing himself as a “fighter,” he said he was “looking forward to graduating with my class in 1991.”

Bennett, Koop Testify

In separate appearances before the panel, Dr. Koop and Secretary Bennett renewed their calls for aids instruction that stresses postponing sexual activity until marriage.

“I think if we had proper value-laden, responsible education about human sexuality in pre-adolescent years,” Dr. Koop said, it would be ''quite possible to raise a whole generation of adolescents that is much less sexually active than the current one.”

But he also reiterated his support for teaching sexually active teen-agers that they may be able to avoid the disease by using condoms.

Mr. Bennett, as he has in the past, placed less emphasis on condoms as a means of preventing the disease.

“Those who seek a prophylactic solution to aids,” he argued, “are refusing to confront the more difficult and more pressing and more real issues--issues of conduct and personal responsibility; issues at the behavioral heart of the aids epidemic and at the heart of much of the controversy surrounding aids.”

Such differing emphases in the past have led to reports of a split between the two federal officials--an idea that Mr. Bennett sought to downplay at the hearing.

But the panel’s chairman, retired Adm. James D. Watkins, noted that ''there is a real perception out there of a lack of unified leadership.”

“I think one of our jobs is to try and bring you two together,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 1988 edition of Education Week as Panel Hears AIDS Victim’s Story

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