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Health educator lauds school AIDS program

Since the Legislature mandated last year that schools conduct classes to deter teenage pregnancy and sexual diseases, the Hernando County school district has greatly impressed at least one national health educator.

"Places around the state are just getting started with their AIDS education programs, while Hernando has had one in place for years and has developed an outstanding program," said Dr. Marilyn Volker. She teaches educators and health officials how they can instruct others about acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

Hernando schools have integrated AIDS education into their middle and secondary schools' health classes since 1987. In the second semester of the school year, the district will introduce AIDS education to fourth- and fifth-graders.

The unique part of the instruction, said Susan Biggart, the district's health and drug coordinator, is the AIDS booklet that will be used. It was created by a group of Hernando seventh-graders for their younger peers.

The 18-page booklets were written by 32 Parrott Middle School pupils last year. The booklets promote drug prevention, sexual abstinence and blood donation.

The books have a test, which consists of true-or-false statements about AIDS, to see how much children know about the disease before they begin the lesson. After the lesson, students take another test to see if they have learned what AIDS is and how it can and cannot be transmitted.

"Getting the facts out, that's what our job is _ to educate the kids so they'll know how to prevent the disease," said Kimi Hellenberg, the health teacher at Parrott whose class wrote the book. "Education is the best tool to prevent AIDS."

Before AIDS lessons are taught, the district sends consent forms to parents, asking whether they want their children to participate. Biggart said that if parents don't want their children to be taught about AIDS in school, they can receive the booklet and teach them at home.

"We would love to see parents (teaching) at home, but, to be realistic, we know that's not going to happen in all cases," Biggart said. "This way, they have the option."

Volker, who gives AIDS instruction seminars at schools each year, said the instructors who teach AIDS must show that they're comfortable with the subject so students also will feel at ease.

"I believe we can be specific and up front with the children and not give them any signs that this is difficult for us," Volker said. "Children are very bright and can sense when something isn't quite right. They'll have questions, and we have to be truthful and straightforward with them."

The state mandate said all students in Florida public schools from kindergarten through high school must receive some form of sex education, although most lessons in primary grades deal with mainly with hygiene and build the foundation for later lessons. But starting from at least the sixth grade, students will learn about AIDS.

The reason behind the law is the dismal statistics for teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

The average age for a girl in the United States to have sexual intercourse for the first time is 16, and the average age for a boy is 15, according to the national Centers for Disease Control. CDC officials said that an estimated 2.5-million teens are infected with sexually transmitted diseases, which includes AIDS.

In Florida, there are 22,408 cases of full-blown AIDS. More than 600 of the cases are children under 13, while 102 youths between 13 and 19 have the fatal disease.

"This is a preventable disease," Volker said. "We have to decide whether we are going to take action now or wait until this becomes a crisis. And schools have decided that they'll start now rather than wait."

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