- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2006

In August 2005, the nonpartisan D.C. Appleseed Center released a report that drew international headlines: Elected officials and policy-makers lag “10 to 15 years” in implementing an effective strategy to ward off the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The center looked at several aspects of laws and policies, and interagency coordination and services, including what is and is not being taught in public schools.

The most shocking data of all involved young people: 64 percent of D.C. students reported having had sexual intercourse at least once (the national average is only 47 percent); 45 percent of students reported having sex with multiple partners in a three-month period; and 1-in 4 students had had intercourse with at least four other persons. These and other facts led to the obvious, which is that it is imperative that the District develop, implement and monitor a comprehensive sex education program.

The Williams administration and the Board of Education are stepping up to the challenge, and both have crucial respective roles to play. We nevertheless have concerns. While school officials are finalizing their soon-to-be-released classroom plan, one of the lead partners under the purview of Mayor Tony Williams seems to have an agenda that is out of touch with parents and contradicts empirical data. The director of the HIV/AIDS Administration, Marsha Martin, has said she wants to blanket the city with — not sex-education programs — but condoms. “We have already had conversations with the public schools. I want them everywhere.”

Proper condom usage is an integral part of most publicly funded, comprehensive sex-education programs, as is the advocacy of abstinence. Parents nonetheless want to know: A) who will be teaching their sons how to use condoms; B) will abstinence be given equal standing; C) will students be taught that intercourse isn’t s the only way to contract the AIDS virus; and D) will parents and guardians be permitted to keep their children out of the program, regardless of their children’s age or grade level.

D.C. officials are in post-haste mode, having for years turned a blind eye to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the need to revamp policies and educate the public. But this is the same school system that has long been troubled with teaching numeracy and phonics to even the youngest of their charges.

It’s encouraging to see the city addressing the life-and-death issue of HIV/AIDS. But increasing the availability of free condoms — and even free needle exchanges — will not begin to stem the rising tide of HIV/AIDS. Parents must have the right to excuse their children from such classes, and the curricula must hammer that risky behavior begets unhealthy and/or deadly consequences. The city must get that message right this time.

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