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Social Issues: Letters

Minneapolis schools are hindering AIDS education

Education is appropriately looked upon as a major force in the fight to control the spread of AIDS. After all, the virus, unlike measles and flu, is spread by behaviors that can reasonably be avoided.

In fact, the AIDS crisis has given scientific respectability to the promotion of traditional morality. Specifically, -if a person avoids injectable drugs and also delays sexual activity until carefully picking a partner for life who has also followed the same precautions, the chance of getting AIDS is almost zero. This choice, and the choice of celibacy, are the safest lifestyles for avoiding sexually transmitted diseases.

These simple themes ought to be the heart and soul of an AIDS education program, especially for primary school. Unfortunately, the "AIDS Education Prevention Program K-6" of the Minneapolis Public Schools may be more appropriately named than its authors intended. In its present form, it indeed prevents education on many fronts.

For example, although varieties of sexual activity are defined in a completely parallel manner (homosexual and heterosexual, vaginal, oral and anal intercourse) it is not revealed that the highest-risk populations are homosexual or bisexual and that the riskiest activity is anal intercourse.

It could be powerfully argued that these concepts are inappropriate for preadolescent children to begin with. Unfortunately, most of them already see more than they should via TV and movies. So if the matters arc brought up in school, why not tell the truth? The reason for the omissions is apparently because there are other overriding concerns, namely to teach tolerance and prevent discrimination.

The curriculum states, "Teachers will need to work overtime so that having AIDS is not seen as punishing, shaming or blaming. It is no one's fault." Yet, for a person who voluntarily engaged in high-risk behavior, it is indeed their own responsibility.

To tell children who have not yet made choices in these matters that it is no one's fault is irresponsible, because it implies they can do nothing to influence the outcome.

If the goal is to promote sympathy for victims, that can and should be done. but not by declaring a no-fault situation. I would feel very sorry for a child who ran out in front of a car and was injured. I would also use the occasion to teach him (and others) lessons that may save their lives.

The curriculum also reminds teachers "that you do not blame the disease on a group of people." This, reflecting the school board's stand against any kind of discrimination, is apparently the reason that the historical and medical facts about the promiscuity are left out. The stated goal of preventing the spread of AIDS is being subverted by a secondary agenda.

The choice of chastity (waiting until entering into a lifetime commitment), or abstinence (the term used in the curriculum) is offered as a possible choice and a positive goal. This is good, but ought to be prominently promoted as the best or safest choice. To do so also removes the fear of sexuality by putting it in its proper place.

The Minnesota Department of Education, in a document recently released to all school boards, states that the No. 1 goal among nine listed for AIDS education should be that students "will abstain from sexual intercourse until they are ready to establish a mutually monogamous relationship."

What are the objections to advocating chastity? Some say it relates to religion and cannot be promoted in the schools. But traditional morality can be presented on a purely scientific basis.

Another objection might be that we cannot "impose our values" on the students. Does that mean that we cannot give them the facts? We do insist that 2+2=4. Should those who believe all options are equal impose their views?

Some object that many students will become sexually active anyway. Yet we tell kids to "just say no" to drugs even though we know that some will ignore us. We can do this and still provide a safety net. Those who make unwise choices can be given advice on how to reduce their risk.

Data show that with increasing age, more adolescents have had at least one sexual experience, becoming a majority by 12th grade. Because of this, many professionals take the tack of anticipating that adolescents will become sexually active no matter what. They try to be available for counseling regarding birth control and disease control.

In subtle or obvious ways, this gives teens the message that sexual activity is expected of them it is a maturational issue. Even saying "It's OK to say 'no way' " sounds wimpy unless you say "it's best" and tell why.

As it is, many chaste teens think themselves abnormal when they compare their experience with the media and "everybody else." If mass teaching on use of condoms is given, this intensifies the image of inevitability.

The terms "safe sex" and "safer sex" are misleading in that condoms are not 100 percent safe. It will be a long time before we know the failure rate for preventing AIDS, because it takes many years for the failure to become apparent. However, in the prevention of pregnancy, condoms have a small but significant mechanical failure, and a much larger human failure due to improper use. In dealing with AIDS, either type of failure may be fatal.

The Minneapolis Public Schools have contracted with a man who wears a Batman costume to teach the details of condom technique. In at least one demonstration, he began with a token of restraint by stating, "Say 'no' to drugs. You may say `no' to sex. if you do have sex, use condoms." He then proceeded with a fascinating description of his craft.

What is the subliminal message? You are essentially invulnerable, like Batman, if you use condoms. Is this honest? Is it wise? Of course not.

There is indication from the writers of the Minneapolis school curriculum that they hear these concerns and will make some changes in the next revision. Still, parents need to monitor what their children are actually being taught, because changes may be slow in coming. Indeed, they may not come at all if the voices that shaped the curriculum in the first place seem more persuasive.

In all districts, parents concerned about their children's well-being should contact teachers, principals and superintendents with their concerns. Otherwise these influential persons only hear the politically active special-interest groups that want to shape the next generation into their own image.

Let us teach and expect the best of our adolescents. Yes, we must help those who fail, but we should not define the failures as normal and gear our approach to the lowest common denominator.

Ross S. Olson is a Minneapolis physician.

Published in Star Tribune 2/2/1990

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