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Beyond the 3 R's: sex, condoms, AIDS

Beginning this fall, students in the nation's fourth-largest school system will get lessons in more than the three R's. Sex, condoms and death and dying are being added to the curriculum. It's part of a new effort aimed at more in-depth and candid discussions at all grade levels about the AIDS virus. Officials of the Dade County school district say they want to dispel myths and give students straight facts that could save their lives.

But the explicit nature of the discussions, including condom-use demonstrations for fifth-graders, has made some educators and parents uneasy. Such lessons on condoms usually don't begin until the seventh grade, if at all, in most school districts, officials say.

"If we can't talk about being sexually active, how can we talk about protecting (someone)?" said 19-year-old Peter Zamora.

Zamora, who was infected with the AIDS virus at 17, now speaks to students about AIDS.

"It's a health issue," Zamora said. "If we don't think of it that way, we are going to be losing lives."

As of April, more than 3,028 cases of acquired immune deficiency syndrome among children under 13 had been reported to the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Another 676 teens, ages 13-19, also were diagnosed with AIDS.

Florida ranks second to New York in total number of AIDS cases involving children under 13, with 421. New York has 861 and California ranks third with 223.

Under the new program, Dade's 290,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade in Miami and in surrounding Dade County will get frank lessons about the transmission of AIDS and how to prevent it. AIDS education is now taught in the fifth through eighth grades and 10th grade.

However, having teachers show fifth-graders how to use a condom has raised the question of whether the lessons may be going too far. Some elementary teachers use two fingers or a banana for the demonstration.

"Studies demonstrate that giving information on sex does not encourage students to have sex," said Frank de Varona, Dade associate superintendent. "Ignorance more than anything else infects people."

De Varona said studies show more than 60 percent of students are having premarital sex, some before the age of 13 and with multiple partners.

"So we do know this is happening: venereal disease, unwanted pregnancies and teen-agers with AIDS," he said.

The new curriculum calls for kindergarteners to be familiarized with such terms as AIDS and HIV. Fourth-graders will learn about such risky behavior as sharing dirty needles and abstinence as the only sure way to avoid sexual transmission of AIDS.

Parents can have their child excused from the lessons, which began in some schools this spring. But school officials said no figures were available on how many students have been pulled from the classes because individual requests are handled by that school.

So far, there has been virtually no public opposition to the new curriculum, which was developed with community input, school officials said.

For their part, the students appear the least fazed.

"They want the information," said Sonia Singleton, a patient advocate at Jackson Memorial Hospital. "I think for any parent who has any fear about people influencing these students to participate in behaviors, they should be sitting in these rooms listening to how they're participating already."