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By Lindsay Toler
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By Ray Downs
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Last month the St. Louis County Department of Health launched a routine investigation into the origin of an HIV case. During the course of the inquiry, an HIV-infected individual told health department officials that he or she might have exposed "up to 50 students" at Normandy High School to the virus. The story received national attention when the health department announced plans to provide free HIV testing to every Normandy High School student. [Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this paragraph; please see end of article.]
Locally, the incident was met with a mix of outrage and confusion. One county high school balked at playing an upcoming football game against Normandy, and some parents threatened to remove their kids from the school.
"This could have been a great opportunity for Normandy High School to tout the fact that they have an interest in their students' health," says Ingrid Denny, a prevention program coordinator for the Missouri Department of Health's Bureau of HIV/STD/Hepatitis. "Ideally, they can still turn this into very positive campaign about being aware of your health status."
In any case, the affair has resulted in a call to arms for local HIV/AIDS groups and health officials who hope the incident will prompt parents and local schools to provide better sex education for kids.
"Our hope is to use this as a learning tool and raise community awareness and understanding and get accurate information out there," says Regina Whittington, director of Supporting Positive Opportunities with Teens, a Washington University-affiliated nonprofit that offers a variety of services for kids ages 13 to 24 who are infected with HIV.
Directors of the SPOT, and its sister program, Project ARK (AIDS/HIV Resources and Knowledge), say they've received more than a dozen calls from local districts seeking HIV and AIDS presentations.
"I think Normandy is really making the issue and epidemic a reality," says Chardial Samuel, the prevention program coordinator at Project ARK. "We've always been faced with the attitude that 'I don't know anyone that happens to,' and the denials that 'It doesn't happen here.' Well, this brings it home: There's at least one person that's infected in these schools."
Tucked away on a sleepy Central West End street, SPOT and Project ARK are not your typical health clinics. For starters, there's the décor: the walls are painted lime green, and the hip furniture looks like it came from the pages of an IKEA catalog.
What ultimately sets the two institutions apart, however, is the multitude of resources they provide. In addition to offering a variety of medical services, such as counseling and health checkups, kids can take a shower, do their laundry or simply hang out and watch TV with their peers.
Nineteen-year-old Anthony Boyd, a volunteer with the organization's youth advisory council, says he believes his HIV infection could have been prevented if he'd had access to better information when he was younger.
"If you don't talk to kids you're setting them up for failure," Boyd says. "Abstinence is all you hear. It's almost 2009. Almost everyone is having sex. It's better to know what's out there and how to be equipped to protect yourself."
According to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, as of 2007, of the 5,000 documented cases of HIV and AIDS in the St. Louis area, 24 were attributed to kids ages 13 to 18. A survey commissioned by the department in 2003 found that 52 percent of high school students in the state said that they had engaged in sexual intercourse — that figure includes 42 percent of ninth-graders.
Until recently, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education distributed grants to fund special HIV education classes at high-risk high schools. However, according to Kevin Miller, a supervisor in the department's HIV/AIDS prevention program, the agency stopped offering the funds in 2006 when just three schools applied for the fifteen available grants.
"The number of people applying for them just kept going down and down and down. We used to have maybe 40 or 50 applications a year," Miller says. "One year [in 2001], we gave a larger grant to the City of St. Louis Public Schools, a bigger one, and we had to ask them to give it back because they just didn't do anything with it."
Missouri currently requires all schools to provide HIV education to their students in order to be accredited. There's also a stipulation that schools providing sex-ed classes must "describe the health benefits and side effects of all forms of contraception." But according to Miller, each district is responsible for determining the amount of HIV education their students receive and the content of those programs. He says many schools opt to teach abstinence-only programs in order to be eligible for federal funding.
"It is exceedingly confusing," Miller says of the regulations. "Like most educational issues, it comes down to local control; they have it and they want to maintain it."
The experts agree that for the most part, programs being implemented by local schools have been ineffective.
"Just look at the number of teenage pregnancies, and look at STD rates of high school students," says Samuel. "You can look at the statistics for each district and it's not hard to figure out who's doing a good job and who isn't."
Change, however, could be slow coming, even after the recent events at Normandy High School.
"This is a real issue that kids need information about," says Miller. "But if a school has neglected to do that so far, maybe they'll just keep burying their heads in the sand."
Correction published 11/12/08: In the original version of this story, we incorrectly stated that the St. Louis County Department of Health had traced the origin of a local HIV case to Normandy High School and that at least one student at the school had tested positive for the virus. In actuality, the health department's investigation into an unspecified HIV case led officials to Normandy High. The above version of the story reflects the corrected text.