AT the beginning of the AIDS panic, misinformation about how HIV could and could not be transmitted was the norm and not the exception.
As we move into the fourth decade since we discovered that HIV
causes AIDS, panic has subsided thanks to accurate education regarding transmission and informed precautions for those working in the medical field, social workers and educators in our schools.
Unfortunately, some of our schools have fallen woefully short of providing up-to-date training for teachers and administrators — to the detriment of our children.
Almost 20 years ago, a teenager in Indiana, Ryan White, was not allowed to attend school after his parents disclosed that their son had become HIV-positive from a blood transfusion. Ryan was a hemophiliac.
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His parents took up a legal battle against the school and their son became the symbol for HIV stigma at its worst. Ultimately, the Whites won their legal battle and Ryan eventually went back to his high school. Today, the Americans with Disabilities Act prevents schools from barring HIV-positive students.
Unfortunately, that is not true for some schools. A few grade schools and high schools around the U.S. have reverted back to the days of the initial AIDS panic, treating students most in need of support as pariahs.
Most recently, a school in Northwest Arkansas barred three students suspected of being HIV-positive from attending classes. This horrible situation comes on the heels of a similar transgression against a high-school student in Central Pennsylvania. In both situations, the students were ultimately allowed to return to school.
However, these boys and girls will not be able to focus solely on their education now that their private health concerns have become public information. Children are often directly or indirectly mistreated by other students due to perceived differences. These children will face an added challenge due to the lack of health education focused on teachers and administrators to further their students’ progress.
Throughout the state of Washington, all students in grades five through 12 must receive annual instruction about HIV transmission and also learn how to prevent infection. The schools are required to adopt a curriculum based on current data.
However, there is no stipulation that this information must be updated with the current, most accurate information about the virus and how to protect the students from infection. Some schools in the state are still teaching a curriculum developed in the late ’80s when it was mandated.
Education is the primary tool in the fight against HIV and AIDS. In states such as California and New York, it is mandated that all HIV information be medically accurate and objective based on available resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Updated learning through continued education practices is the best way to further our goal of ending this epidemic. If we do not do our due diligence to ensure that today’s children, youths and adults are consistently receiving up-to-date information on how HIV is actually transmitted, we will be doomed to repeat history instead of learning from it.
Ace Robinson is director of prevention, health education and public policy and advocacy at Seattle’s Lifelong AIDS Alliance.