Slowly but surely, high schools have added a controversial new subject to the three Rs: Frank discussions on ways to avoid the deadly AIDS virus.
Despite vocal opposition from moral crusaders and historically weak guidance from state educators, local school districts are disseminating a growing body of knowledge about the AIDS virus to children in the classroom.
Although California is one of the nation's leaders in the number of AIDS cases--second only to New York--the state lags behind others in requiring students be taught about the virus, which has killed nearly 28,000 Americans since 1981.
The state, along with 32 others, does not mandate AIDS education in public schools, according to a survey released in December by the National Assn. of State Boards of Education.
Consequently, some school districts have been slow to include the sexually explicit subject in their curriculum.
"It's tough for all districts. It's a very controversial subject," said Diane Thomas, spokeswoman for the Santa Ana Unified School District, which has not implemented AIDS education.
Others feel it is time to make the issue part of all children's education.
'Have Right to Information'
"We as adults don't have the right to withhold information from children that may save their lives. Children have a right to that information. We just have to figure out an appropriate way to give that to them," said Amanda Mellinger, who heads the state Department of Education's health, nutrition and physical education programs.
In an informal survey of 100 California school districts by the Education Department in June, 35 reported that acquired immune deficiency syndrome was not discussed in the classroom, Mellinger said.
"I think there are some people who are sitting back waiting," said Gus Dalis, a health consultant to the Los Angeles County Office of Education. "Some people don't want to be the first on the block, particularly in a sensitive issue like this. I think they are waiting for some direction from the state."
The state has been slow to spread educational materials about the disease. For several years, the Department of Education remained virtually silent about what children should be taught about AIDS.
"For a lot of reasons, it seems to be a political issue. The opposition is very vocal," Mellinger said. "But I think people are realizing the need to push through the controversy and get on with the business of educating children."
Beginning in March, the state will stage 10 workshops to train educators about discussing the AIDS virus with children, Mellinger said.
In the absence of state directives, many local districts have marched ahead and created their own AIDS curriculum.
The Los Angeles Unified School District has developed a model program that's studied by other educators. AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases have been discussed in health classes with parental consent for grades 7 through 10 since 1986, said Ruth Rich, instructional specialist for health education with the district.
During a two-week section on sexually transmitted diseases, instructors tell students how AIDS is transmitted and ways to prevent infection.
"The last thing in the whole world we want is for kids to be sexually active, but you have to look at the reality of where they're at," Rich said.
"If youngsters are at high risk, we need to give them the type of strategies that the Centers for Disease Control has found effective," she said. "We say abstain or postpone. Then, we say that condoms are not 100% effective, but at least they provide a barrier.
"It's not a liberal or conservative issue. Young people have to have an education that will reduce their risk of exposure."
Receives $325,000 Grant
The district, which received a $325,000 federal grant to develop an AIDS prevention project, will hold a two-day workshop this spring to teach educators how to present AIDS-prevention strategies to students, Rich said.
Senior high schools are targeted this year. The program will expand to cover junior high schools next year and 6th graders in 1990, she said.
Other districts, however, are unable to duplicate Los Angeles Unified's program.
"Most districts don't have their own in-house expertise to develop their own curriculum," Dalis said. "You've got to know your subject matter before you can teach it. Sometimes you can do more harm than good if you teach myths."
Thomas, whose district has collected information on the disease for two years and is studying ways to implement AIDS education, said there are other obstacles to bringing the subject into the classroom.
"One of the slowing-down factors is that there have not been a lot of materials aimed at the Hispanic community. It has been more difficult to find materials that are appropriate," she said, noting that curriculum must be tailored to overcome language and cultural barriers.
State Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara) will introduce a bill this spring requiring districts to develop local AIDS education programs, said Joe Caves, a Hart legislative aide.
"The only effective means we have of stopping the AIDS virus is to change people's behavior," Caves said. "Teen-agers are most likely to experiment with sex and drugs but least likely to have much information and understand the implications of their actions.
"The school is an important place where attitudes are formed. It's the one place where government can reach teen-agers."