Bennett Handbook On AIDS Stresses Sexual Abstinence
Washington--In a controversial new handbook on teaching children about aids, Secretary of Education William J. Bennett urges parents and educators to emphasize that "appropriate moral and social conduct" is the only sure way to prevent the spread of the fatal disease.
Moreover, he adds, adults who advise young people that condoms provide some protection against acquired immune deficiency syndrome must be aware that such counsel can "suggest to teen-agers that they are expected to engage in sexual intercourse."
The 28-page handbook, "aids and the Education of Our Children: A Guide for Parents and Teachers" is the first official federal publication on aids education in schools.
Released at a news conference here last week, the booklet will be mailed to every school principal, local school board, and parent group in the country. A department spokesman last week set the information project's cost at $250,000.
The publication, which became embroiled in controversy even before its release, has drawn criticism for what one critic last week termed its "head-in-the-sand" moral tone. Some of the factual information included in the publication has also been disputed by a number of scientists.
But Mr. Bennett, who wrote large portions of the guide himself, rejected such complaints.
The booklet "takes morality seriously, as it should--because moral convictions powerfully determine behavior," the Secretary told reporters. "When it comes to aids, science and morality walk the same path.''
The degree to which that theme, which runs throughout the booklet, should be emphasized in aids education has been the subject of a subtle disagreement within the Reagan Administration over the past year.
Both Mr. Bennett and Surgeon General C. Everett Koop--who issued a widely distributed report on aids a year ago--have long agreed that saying "no" to premarital sex, marital infidelity, and intravenous drug use is the best protection against the disease.
But the Surgeon General, to a far greater extent than the Secretary, has also stressed the importance of telling young people that using condoms during sexual intercourse helps prevent infection with the aids virus.
Mr. Bennett said that parts of the Education Department's pamphlet had been reviewed and approved by the White House.
A more detailed guide to aids instruction is expected to be published by the federal Centers for Disease Control in the next several weeks. The cdc has also awarded $7 million in aids-education grants to 42 education groups and agencies nationwide. (See list on page XX.)
In a related development last week, the top two members of Presi4dent Reagan's advisory commission on aids submitted their resignations. The panel's chairman, Dr. W. Eugene Mayberry, chief executive officer of the Mayo Clinic, and its vice chairman, Dr. Woodrow A. Myers Jr., state health commissioner in Indiana, reportedly stepped down because of ideological differences within the 13-member group.
Condoms and AIDS
Legislators and educators last week generally praised the Education Department for issuing some long-awaited advice on an urgent topic.
But a number of critics complained that the booklet's stress on sexual abstinence ignores the fact that many teen-agers will disregard such advice.
"The Education Department seems to imply that all we should ever talk about is abstinence, and we think that's most important, too," said Keith Geiger, vice president of the National Education Association. ''But we're not talking about an illness. We're talking about death."
"We owe it to those who do not choose abstinence to talk about other means of preventing the disease," he said.
Most of the debate centers on a section of the guide dealing with condoms. That discussion, which points out that condoms have a 10 percent failure rate in preventing pregnancy, plays down their effectiveness as a protection against aids.
The booklet also cites a Florida study in which 17 percent of the spouses of aids victims became infected with the virus within one year even though they had used condoms. The methodology of that study has been questioned by some epidemiologists.
"Young people must know that the use of condoms can reduce, but by no means eliminate, the risk of contracting aids," the handbook advises. "Indeed, promoting the use of condoms can suggest to teen-agers that adults expect them to engage in sexual intercourse."
But Dr. Leon Eisenberg, a professor at the Harvard Medical School who served on a national research panel that called for aids education nearly a year ago, questioned the wisdom of that argument.
"Of course, condoms aren't perfect," he said last week, "but to disparage condoms as one of the better advices on prevention is essentially immoral in itself."
His comments were echoed by Representative Ted Weiss, Democrat of New York and chairman of the House Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Affairs and Human Resources. His subcommittee voted last month to subpoena a draft of the department's booklet and the research used to write it. (See Education Week, Oct. 7, 1985.)
The booklet's calls for sexual abstinence are "totally out of touch with reality," Mr. Weiss contended, noting that by age 17 nearly half of all boys and 30 percent of all girls have had sex.
Mr. Weiss sought to subpoena the booklet, he said, because he feared it would supplant a more comprehensive and explicit guide being developed by the cdc, the agency designated by the Administration to draw up guidelines for aids education in the schools.
An aide to Mr. Weiss and sources at the cdc said Education Department officials had had little or no contact with the federal health agency in preparing their guide. As a result, the sources charged, some of the scientific information disseminated by the department conflicts with what is commonly understood to be true by cdc epidemiologists.
The department's publication, for example, states that the aids virus has been found in urine--a claim that cdc epidemiologists said they had "seen no evidence of" to date.
In another statement that some experts have questioned, the same section of the handbook says: "The aids virus is most commonly transmitted through male homosexual intercourse with an infected partner and through the sharing of intravenous drug needles or syringes with an infected person."
Harvard's Dr. Eisenberg said,el15l"That statement ought to begin with the words, 'In Western Europe and the United States,' because we know that in Africa most of the cases have involved heterosexual transmission of the virus."
The statement, he charged, implies that "gays get what they deserve--at least that's how it's going to be read."
The subpoena issued by Representative Weiss's subcommittee, which was never formally served, prompted the department to issue its booklet slightly earlier than planned, according to John Walters, an aide to Secretary Bennett and co-author of the pamphlet.
In contrast to the strong reservations voiced by critics of the department, the top official of the National School Boards Association offered praise for the new publication. The association's executive director, Thomas A. Shannon, said Mr. Bennett had "addressed forthrightly the moral dimensions of the issue."
"Parents who countenance children being sexually active are doing themselves, their children, society, and their nation, a grievous disservice," Mr. Shannon argued. "To say 'just wear a condom' is a nonleadership kind of thing."
The booklet is divided into three parts: a section on scientific facts about the disease and how it is transmitted, a segment with advice on placing aids education in a moral context, and a listing of recommended resources for more information on the disease.
Department officials also seek to answer questions about the legal right of children with aids to attend school.
The guide notes that such pupils must be admitted to regular classrooms as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year in School Board of Nassau County, Fla. v. Arline. That decision held that people with infectious diseases are protected from discrimination by institutions that receive federal funding.
Exceptions may be made, the guide states, for children who may pose a health threat to their classmates because, for example, they have open wounds or a tendency to bite.
The department also notes that children whose health is impaired by the disease may need--and be entitled to receive--special education and related services under P.L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act.
That federal law and the separate Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act also require schools to maintain confidentiality regarding children who have the disease or test positive for the virus that causes it, according to the guide.
In releasing the publication Oct. 6, Mr. Bennett also said most schools whose curricula were reviewed by the department began teaching about the disease "around the 7th grade."
The handbook does not recommend a specific grade level at which instruction should begin, because that determination "should be made at the local levels," according to Mr. Bennett.
Approximately 250,000 of the first 500,000 printed copies of the booklet will be provided at no cost to those who request them. Copies can be obtained by writing the Consumer Information Center; Dept. ed; Pueblo, Col. 81009.
Vol. 07, Issue 06