- Associated Press - Sunday, April 19, 2015

AUSTIN, Ind. (AP) - To Austin High School Principal Sherman Smith, it’s just bullying on a bigger stage.

National and regional media coverage of the HIV outbreak in Scott County has portrayed Austin as a small, poor town with a big drug problem. It’s not a tough picture to paint, given the images of needles found in public spaces and reports that 130 cases of HIV have been detected, with more expected to come.

But that’s not the Austin that Smith knows.

“You get two or three kids, maybe at a sporting event, that do something stupid, something bad, and a lot of times people will want to be mad at the entire school because of the actions of those two or three kids, and a lot of times those actions are not reflective of the school,” Smith told the News and Tribune (https://bit.ly/1IZ8O15 ). “… I know it’s a large number of people with HIV in the north end of Austin, but that’s not reflective of our school, and it’s not reflective of our community.”

Austin High School’s students aren’t about to let the HIV outbreak define their families, their school or their city. In a “Special Crisis” issue of The Eagle, the school newspaper, Austin juniors and seniors took on the outbreak from a variety of angles.

Euleda Turner, an AHS teacher and The Eagle’s faculty adviser, is proud of how her kids handled a very adult subject.

“These kids weren’t trying to just get a grade,” Turner said. “They weren’t just trying to meet a requirement for an assignment. They had a heart for what they were doing.”

Two of the bylines in the issue belong to Holli Reynolds, an 18-year-old senior that has taken the lead among her classmates to put up a united front against the disease and the negative perceptions that come with it. In “Her Story,” Reynolds gives a glimpse into the life of an Opana-addicted prostitute and Austin resident.

“Not everyone in Austin wants to be an addict, especially many of the addicts like this woman,” Reynolds concluded in “Her Story.” ”They just feel hopeless. Everyone needs to come together and bring hope back into Austin.”

The Eagle’s student staff knew they needed to move quickly when they first learned of the HIV problem, a product of pervasive intravenous drug use in the northern neighborhoods of Austin. Students were more likely to pay attention to what their peers had to say, and it was important to get the message out, Reynolds said.

“We wanted it to be raw,” Reynolds said. “We wanted it to be completely the way the kids saw what was going on.”

Writing about Austin’s struggle with addiction isn’t where Reynolds’ fight to bring back hope ends. She formed a group of high schoolers called “Stand Up,” with the mission to “Stand Up to change our community, to Stand Up to influence our children, and to Stand Up and change our future.”

Stand Up held its first meeting Thursday evening at Frontline Ministries in Austin, where the older children taught their younger peers about drugs and HIV prevention.

The group has about 15 members, Reynolds estimated, but she’s got her sights set on loftier goals.

“It’s only been going for two weeks, and we’ve already got so much accomplished,” Reynolds said. “We expect it to be big.”

Teaching the youth of Austin about what addiction has done to their community is important, because that generation will define the city’s future, said Reynolds’ stepfather Brandon Spagnolia, an AHS assistant athletic director, teacher and coach.

Spagnolia, an Austin native, knows many of the people that have been affected the most by HIV.

“One of my biggest pet peeves right now is, people say, ‘Why are you helping those people?’” said Spagnolia. “They refer to them as ‘those people,’ and it’s not ‘those people.’ They’re people, just like you and I. They just made one bad decision somewhere down the line that led them to the lives that they live, and they can’t get out of it.”

Spagnolia is a proud man - proud of his community, proud of the students at the school, and particularly proud of Reynolds for taking the lead in standing up against the community’s ills.

Some from outside of Austin have already tried to use the crisis as a way to insult the city and its residents, and Spagnolia finds that hurtful. But the kids at AHS have been handling it the right way so far, Smith said.

“We need to let our kids know it’s not what happens to you as much as how you handle what happens to you,” Smith said. “The bullying’s going to happen. Just let it go.”


Information from: News and Tribune, Jeffersonville, Ind., https://www.newsandtribune.com

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