Sam Ferguson is smart. He just graduated from Cambridge High School with enough advance placement credits to skip his freshman year of college. He plans to attend the University of Georgia in the fall to study pharmaceutical administration and violin performance.
But one topic still stumps him: HIV/AIDS.
“I know it’s, like, pretty prevalent in Atlanta,” the 18 year old smiled sheepishly. “I feel like I should know more, but I don’t.”
“Prevalent” may be an understatement. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has gone so far as to say Atlanta’s HIV rate is comparable to that of a developing nation, and people 13-24 years old make up about one-quarter of all new cases.
Ferguson said only one day was devoted to sex education in the semester-long health course he was required to take. HIV never came up that day.
Schools in the state of Georgia have historically not addressed the issue in a comprehensive way, because, in part, sex education classes elicit strong responses from parents. One result has been that in 2013, when John Barge headed the Department of Education, it passed up an estimated $1.9 million in CDC funding for a more comprehensive HIV education curriculum. A DOE spokesperson confirmed that officials felt uncomfortable including questions regarding sexual behavior on the curriculum’s required survey of students.
The CDC funding, which would have covered costs for five years, specifically targeted areas most affected by HIV and AIDS for a series of initiatives, including school surveillance, a push for “exemplary sexual health education emphasizing HIV and other [sexually transmitted disease] prevention” and a program specifically tailored to young gay men.
Georgia was shortlisted to receive the grant because it has the fifth-highest rate of HIV in the nation. According to statistics from the Department of Public Health, more than 600 people were diagnosed with HIV in 2014 in Fulton County alone.
“Here it is three years later and those [survey] questions still aren’t being asked,” said Kim Nolte, the CEO of the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power and Potential. “That makes it very difficult for us and our state to understand the sexual behavior of young people. Are they having sex? If they are, are they using contraception? How many partners have they had? Are they using condoms? We don’t have any of that.”
Nolte’s organization advocates for improved health education in schools. They’ve trained more than 450 teachers across 9 school districts, including DeKalb County.
Students like Ferguson are their target audience. He’s was a star AP English student, but barely knows how HIV is transmitted.
“Sexually, right? And through…” he trailed off before guessing. “Blood?”
Though GCAPP tailors the recommended curriculum to the needs of each district, they often recommend a program called Family Life and Sexual Health (FLASH).
FLASH is one of several sexual education programs offered in Georgia. DeKalb is the only district in metro Atlanta that uses it. Another program is Choosing the Best, which puts greater emphasis on abstinence.
In Choosing the Best, “Students learn how HIV and common [STDs] are transmitted, side effects and treatments for [STDs], ways to seek help, risks and consequences for early sexual involvement, steps people should take if they think they have contracted an STD/HIV, and ways to engage others to promote care and concern,” a Fulton County School District spokesperson said in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Further, we educate about contraceptives, but always in the context of presenting abstinence as the healthiest choice, which is in compliance with state law and mandated guidelines.”
Ryan Wirtz, a rising senior at DeKalb’s Dunwoody High School, is comfortable talking about T-cell counts and the four bodily fluids that transmit HIV, but he’s pretty sure he didn’t learn it from his health teacher.
“I think the big part of where this is coming from is in middle school, in 8th grade, my middle school had an AIDS seminar,” Wirtz stumbled over his words as he remembered that hour-long assembly. “There was someone who came from AID Atlanta, two people, and they came and gave a big talk to all the students there.”
Kent Wargowsky, a science teacher and Gay-Straight Alliance coordinator at DeKalb School of the Arts, said outside experts are usually the only way students get an in-depth lesson in HIV.
“If we don’t elicit other schools or groups to come in, it’s not going to happen,” he said. He acknowledged that the in-class curriculum has started to improve in recent years, but large districts like DeKalb tend to move slowly.
DeKalb County was identified by the CDC in 2013 as an area with particularly high incidence of HIV — in 2014, it had 109 new cases in people 13 to 25 years old — and was eligible for CDC money. The county is expected to receive about $225,000 over five years to conduct the risk surveys. It was eligible to receive up to $1.8 million, but it failed to apply for the full funding.
Masonia Traylor, one of the speakers who presented at Wirtz’s middle school back in 2013, has spoken to thousands of students and teachers in the metro Atlanta area and thinks, generally, their notions about the disease are outdated.
She believes schools focus too much on HIV as a death sentence and don’t teach clearly that people can live long, productive lives when HIV positive. That can have a negative effect on students.
“People end up associating HIV with death, so they’re afraid to get tested and they’re afraid to get treated. By the time they go in to get tested, they’re not coming out with an HIV diagnosis, they’re coming back with an AIDS diagnosis. They’re waiting too late.”
Though Georgia law requires “AIDS prevention instruction,” the broad language means districts may interpret it in vastly different ways. But Nolte, as well as other advocates, thinks the mandate is clear.
“It’s the parents’ responsibility to teach values; it’s the schools responsibility to teach medically accurate, non-judgmental information,” Nolte said. “There is no public health issue that has ever been solved through ignorance and withholding information.”