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Our School System Fails Where Lives Are at Stake

November 30, 2010

For our World AIDS Day 2010 section, we wanted to capture the diversity of the AIDS community. So, we reached out to people across the world -- mostly those who have never written for us before -- and asked them to guest blog. These columns are written by people who are living with HIV, have been affected by HIV, or work in the field.

Tracie M. Gardner

Tracie M. Gardner

Kymsha Henry

Kymsha Henry

New York City's embattled school system is no strange topic for the enraged among us: What a new chancellor means, how mayoral control has played out, whether test scores show failure or progress -- the talk never ends. But what the education community isn't talking about is the blatant public health failure happening in our schools every day.

We are talking about HIV -- specifically, the mandate for schools to teach our children about it as part of their health education. Twenty-three years after advocates and health officials won the hard-fought addition of an HIV/AIDS curriculum in New York schools, the quality -- or even existence -- of sex and HIV education is debatable, at best. That means that in a city whose rate of HIV infection is three times that of the rest of the nation, our kids still don't get the importance of safer sex.

As it is, school-age students are bombarded with misinformation and myths about sexual health and sexually transmitted infections from peers. Now, with the advent of the "reality show," they are also learning about sex from misinformed D-list celebrities. Case in point: the admission from Pauly D and Mike "The Situation" Sorentino of MTV's Jersey Shore that when they have sex in the hot tub they do not use a condom, because "hot water kills all the sperm." Members of the Young Women of Color HIV/AIDS Coalition encounter this type of nonsense constantly as they try to educate our youth on making healthy choices.

And Dr. Alwyn Cohall, Associate Professor of Clinical Pediatrics, College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University -- as well as Director of Project STAY (Services To Assist Youth) and a consulting physician with the Young Men's Clinic (YMC) -- is hearing another particularly toxic piece of "wisdom" circulating among the young people he sees: If the ear wax of a female sex partner is inserted into her vagina and she shudders, she has an STD.

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Messages like these are dangerous and irresponsible, and their effect is more than anecdotal. More than half of the city's high schoolers are having sex, according to a Health Department report in 2007. Now, the newly released National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior shows us that only 58% of girls 14-17 used a condom the last time they had sex. In 2008 alone, there were 1,186 new HIV diagnoses among New Yorkers age 13-29. Wouldn't it be great if schools actually provided the solid sexual health education -- including the mandated HIV/AIDS curriculum -- that exists precisely to combat the myths and help reduce the number of new infections among this age group?

We already have this population in our schools every day. Instead of using this opportunity to reach kids early with the message of prevention, we're letting the rumor mill put their lives in danger. Why? Because addressing the problem means talking about sex. For too long, discomfort on this front has been a stumbling block in the fight against HIV. Infection from intravenous drug use and from mother to child has plummeted, and yet the simplest solution to sexual transmission makes us squirm. Education officials need to face the reality -- adolescents are having sex -- and do what's right, and what the law requires: Teach our children these facts. Give them the tools to make healthy choices. Turn HIV transmission around before it needlessly lays claim to another generation.

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.


This article was provided by TheBody.com.

See Also
Quiz: Are You at Risk for HIV?
10 Common Fears About HIV Transmission
More News About Sexual Education


Reader Comments:

Comment by: Linda (North Bergen, NJ) Thu., Dec. 23, 2010 at 12:43 pm EST
I've raised 3 boys by myself and taught them about sex education-contraception, std's, hiv/aids but alot of people are afraid to talk about any of this to their kids. But alot of parents are afraid that by teaching them about sex education it's like giving them the okay to go and have sex. But in reality it's empowering them to make good decisions - like using a condom when having sex.

Since many parents don't or won't talk about these things with their children or they are so uninformed (especially about hiv/aids), it is necessary for the school system to get the right information out to these kids before they are having sex. They need to be informed so that they can make the right decisions.
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Comment by: Rusti (NYC) Wed., Dec. 1, 2010 at 9:16 am EST
Thank you for speaking the truth. We are a community that is afraid to have the conversation with our children because we can't have the conversation amongst ourselves. Black women's sexuality is taboo and until we become free to speak about our bodies we will continue to mislead our youth.
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