Abject Lessons


City and state government guarantee New York City public school students some education about HIV and AIDS—at least on paper. A January report shows that promise has largely been empty. And on Thursday, a state assembly hearing will take up the politically explosive questions of how to reform school-based sex education—and why students aren’t receiving the mandated lessons.

“I haven’t gotten any of those classes, like, at all,” says Rajone Morris, a junior at Manhattan’s Beacon High School and a peer educator with the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Teen Health Initiative. “And I know a lot of my friends don’t know the things they should. Just today a friend of mine asked me what ‘penetration’ is. And I know she’s sexually active. It’s scary.”

According to a group of students and recent graduates of New York City public schools known as Youth Organizers United, Morris is not the only one getting less than what the city and state require. Based on a citywide survey of 495 high school students completed last year, YOU found that only 6 percent of surveyed students in ninth grade and above had received all of the mandated HIV/AIDS lessons. Almost one-third reported that they hadn’t gotten any HIV/AIDS education at all since entering high school.

Since 1987, state education officials have required public schools throughout New York to provide AIDS education to children between kindergarten and 12th grade. Two years later, the city’s Board of Education passed more specific requirements, mandating that local students in grades seven through 12 receive six lessons about HIV and AIDS each year, and students between kindergarten and sixth grade receive five per year. In 1991, the city went further still, requiring HIV/AIDS education teams in each high school, along with condom availability programs.

But more than two decades into the epidemic, mounting evidence suggests that all these requirements are being routinely flouted and ignored. In addition to the YOU survey and the policy paper, which was released on January 7 by the New York AIDS Coalition, a Manhattan-based advocacy group, another recent study indicts the public school system for overwhelmingly failing to follow its own health education requirements.

At a January 14 public forum that was packed with frustrated students and parents, the city even admitted to its own lapses. “It’s fair to say we need to do better,” said Roger Platt, director of the city’s Office of School Health. While he said the city was educating some students about HIV—and that teens in New York City are, on average, better informed than those in the rest of the country—Platt acknowledged that city schools “are not meeting the number of lessons required by the mandate.”

The lack of lessons about HIV is part of a larger citywide failure to provide students with mandated general health education, according to New York State assembly member Scott Stringer. A June 2003 report by Stringer’s office found that three-quarters of city school districts violate at least one of the government mandates regulating how students learn about AIDS, drug abuse, and sex education. The study, which was based on 27 of the city’s 32 district health coordinators, also reported that 63 percent of school districts didn’t have enough properly trained instructors to teach either the more general “family living/sex education” curriculum or lessons about HIV and AIDS.

Students confirm both the dearth of health teachers and the inappropriateness of those who, for lack of anyone more qualified, end up leading classes about AIDS and health. “I’m just getting HIV education for the first time now,” says Stephanie Andujar, a senior at Talent Unlimited High School on East 68th Street, which specializes in dance, music, and theater classes. “Last year we didn’t have a health teacher due to budget cuts. And now we have a dance teacher teaching health. She comes in with tights and dance slippers on.”

It’s been more than a decade since New Yorkers attempted a serious discussion about HIV and sex education in city schools. So fiery was the last round of “talks,” it ended with the ouster of the then school chancellor, Joseph Fernandez, who was attacked as sexually corrupt by religious conservatives for trying to promote tolerance of homosexuality and get condoms distributed in schools. Opposed by Giuliani and the Christian Coalition, Fernandez and his rejected Rainbow Curriculum were practically booted out of town in 1993.

In what seems to be the first significant push forward on this issue since the Fernandez fiasco, the parents, students, and HIV educators gathered at the January meeting called for the speedy addition of new health teachers and a system to oversee their work. The state assembly’s education committee will hold its hearing on public school health education February 5. And Youth Organizers United is embarking on a campaign to collect 4,000 signatures on a petition demanding HIV education, which the group then plans to submit to the Department of Education. (Last year, when the group asked the principals of 10 high schools to meet with them to discuss the issue, all declined.)

But Platt, whose school health office is jointly run by the city’s departments of health and education, predicts that just coming up with a plan to improve AIDS education will take at least a year. Platt suggests that institutional barriers are likely to slow—if not stymie—this latest organizing effort. He notes a lack of both funding and qualified teachers, acknowledging that the school system doesn’t have “anywhere near the number of teachers we need certified to teach health education.”

Some blame the negligence of HIV education on a scores-driven climate in the schools. “The educational system feels tests are more important than health,” says Robert Foxx, a 22-year-old program coordinator for Youth Organizers United. Foxx suggested the schools offer required lab classes in which students are tested on their knowledge about AIDS and sexual health. Others called for a Regents’ test in health.

Both the city and advocates seem to agree on the most daunting obstacle to the mounting campaign: the kind of red-hot political opposition that flared up the last time this issue got aired. As Platt politely reminded angry advocates at the forum, “you need agreement from the community” to actually change anything about sex education in the schools.

Gina Quattrochi, executive director of a nonprofit organization that provides housing and services to homeless people with AIDS, and the parent of two students in city public schools, is less circumspect about the forces she thinks threaten to derail AIDS education efforts. “Last time when we were fighting about the Rainbow Curriculum, we all backed off this issue because of the terrible attack from the right wing,” says Quattrochi, recalling the angry protests that painted Fernandez and his supporters as purveyors of immorality. “We were scared.”

This time, advocates seem braced for a rough fight in order to have the HIV education curriculum updated and to have existing mandates enforced. “We have a good shot this time,” says Rebecca Mandell, policy associate at the New York AIDS Coalition. The challenge, she says, is making the goals of HIV education clear to its opponents. “We need to talk to parents and PTAs and explain why it’s so important that kids get this information,” says Mandell. “We need to try to make parents understand that we’re trying to protect their kids, not encouraging them to have sex.”

Sharon Lerner is a senior fellow at the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School University’s Milano Graduate School.