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Mandates Won't Save Our Kids from HIV -- Actual Follow-Through Will

By Tracie M. Gardner and Kymsha Henry

August 18, 2011

This article was provided by the Legal Action Center.

Tracie M. Gardner

Tracie M. Gardner

Kymsha Henry

Kymsha Henry

It would be an understatement to say Mayor Bloomberg's announcement of a sexual education mandate as part of his Young Men's Initiative was welcome news. Finally, advocates cheer, New York City is starting to get that sex ed is part of any smart solution to the challenges facing our youth, and our communities of color.

But sex ed advocates -- and especially those fighting HIV specifically -- also have plenty of reason to be skeptical. For us, mandates are nothing new: In 1987, we celebrated the long overdue addition of a required HIV/AIDS curriculum in New York schools; this was followed in 1991 by the New York City HIV/AIDS Education Mandate, which included condom access, and a Board of Regents' policy on HIV/AIDS instruction that emphasized abstinence.

Setting aside the specifics of those programs, we have learned one thing from all these mandates: They are not enough -- not even close, as the numbers have shown. After the fanfare, implementation of these new sex ed policies was spotty and disorganized from the beginning, with no state or city oversight to ensure that schools were even teaching sex ed -- or to evaluate the effectiveness of the programs that did exist.

As a result, the number of HIV infections spiked instead of falling, with a particularly alarming upswing among girls and young women of color. Now, nearly a quarter-century after the first HIV education mandate, the city's AIDS case rate is almost triple the U.S. average, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reports, with HIV as the third-leading cause of death for New Yorkers age 35 to 54. In 2008 alone, there were 1,186 new HIV diagnoses among New Yorkers age 13-29 -- the very age group that should've been learning, in school, how to avoid this fate.

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The key to change, then, is not the mandates but the follow-through.

Which brings us to Bloomberg's news: While it's too late to right the missteps of the past two mandates, we do have an opportunity to integrate the three mandates and change the game with thoughtful planning and consistent implementation. The first step, however, is for the mayor to expand on what, exactly, is required under this new policy, as the lack of detail thus far is troubling, to say the least. He may be moving slowly because of the potential for backlash on this controversial topic, but there's no time to spare when AIDS is claiming lives every day.

The second step is for Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott to convene a planning and implementation group of stakeholders who know this issue, from the practitioners to the community groups that have sprung up to fill the gap. He would do well to consult with, say, the Young Women of Color HIV/AIDS Coalition, which is working in the community, and members of Just Ask Me, who are in the schools themselves.

This time around, we know to demand more than just mandates. If Bloomberg and Walcott want real change, they will know well enough to deliver more, too.

Tracie M. Gardner is the Director of State Policy/WISH-NY of the Legal Action Center and Kymsha Henry is the Co-director of the Young Women of Color HIV/AIDS Coalition.

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