Lessons From Pea Ridge: 5 Ways Parents Can Help Update HIV Education in the United States

As the mother of an HIV positive school-age son who is working on updating HIV/AIDS educational resources in public school classrooms, I was very disheartened to learn that the devastating stigma still associated with HIV reared its ugly head in a public school in Arkansas last week.

On September 16th, news broke that Pea Ridge School District in Arkansas banned three siblings, two of whom are classified as special needs, from attending school because the district suspected they were HIV positive. Pea Ridge demanded that the children's foster parents provide HIV test results to prove the children did not have the virus. You can read more about the incident here.

The district vigorously defended its right to demand HIV test results, saying they had consulted an attorney. There's just one problem. Federal HIV disclosure laws require that a person's HIV status be kept confidential. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) is the federal law that protects the privacy of a person's health information; this is information the attorney could have easily googled. Of course, this isn't the first time students have been denied access to education because of their HIV status. We all remember Ryan White, an American teenager from Kokomo, Indiana who was expelled from middle school because he was HIV positive. But, that was in 1986 -- 27 years ago.

The next logical question when analyzing the Pea Ridge debacle is this: Why did the district want to know the status of the three siblings? Why did they feel entitled to that information? The administration believed the students posed a threat to staff and students.

At the Pea Ridge School Board meeting last week, many HIV advocates attended and were live tweeting the board's discussion. It turns out that two of the students had special needs and were known to scratch and bite. At the board meeting, it became abundantly clear that Superintendent Neal and other board members believed, in spite of well-known scientific evidence to the contrary, that HIV could be easily transmitted through scratching and biting. Pea Ridge's attorney had advised the district that the risk of HIV transmission through human bites was significant. The twittersphere reported that the vice president of Pea Ridge School Board, Ann Cato, was the only member of the school board defending the rights of the students. I called Pea Ridge School District to request a copy of the minutes from that board meeting, but they are not yet available to the public.

For the sake of clarity, let's review the basic facts about HIV transmission. HIV is transmitted through unprotected sexual intercourse, unprotected oral sex, sharing needles or syringes, or in my son's case, through pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. Based on this basic information that any one with an Internet connection can easily look up, HIV is not transmitted through scratching and biting. There have been very isolated cases of HIV transmission occurring through human bites, but the risk is negligible at best. It is much more likely that other diseases and viruses (Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, herpes simplex virus, syphilis, tuberculosis, or tetanus) could be transmitted through a human bite. Of course, no testing was demanded for these risks.

Pea Ridge School District's misunderstanding of basic facts about HIV begs the question -- if the staff themselves are misinformed, what are the students learning about HIV? What myths are being perpetuated and passed down to the next generation?

Arkansas, along with 10 other states (Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia) does not have a state educational mandate that requires school districts to teach about HIV and Sexual Health. This means that individual school districts (there are 239 in Arkansas) can decide whether to teach this information or not. I reached out to the HIV/STD Coordinator at the Arkansas Department of Education, Kathleen Courtney, to get an overview of HIV and Sexual Health education in the state. She reported, "There needs to be some education done with everyone from administration, school board members, staff, students, and communities with regards to HIV and policy throughout the state. I hope to be able to better address this now. The Pea Ridge school incident will hopefully open more doors for us."

It is interesting to note that Arkansas ranks first in adolescent birth rates, 5th in adolescent second birth rates, and is continually in the top ten for STD rates. It isn't difficult to link these outcomes with the lack of a state mandate for HIV and Sexual Health education. Courtney further commented, "We still have many communities and schools that choose to focus on abstinence-only programs, or have teachers who are not comfortable with the topic. I am hoping with the new cooperative agreement for Sexual Health from CDC we will be able to better address some of these issues."

The ongoing Pea Ridge incident should give parents across the nation pause. With a resurgence of HIV infections in 13-24 year olds in recent years, we must ensure that our kids are receiving accurate information about HIV prevention and transmission. And, we must ensure that this education focuses on removing stigma.

Here are five things you can do to ensure that your child's school district is teaching up to date, relevant information about HIV, AIDS, and Sexual Health.

1. Research the law in your state.
You can check the HIV-STD education laws in your state at the Guttmacher Institute's State Policies in Brief: Sex and HIV Education. It's important to know what the requirements are in your state so you can gauge whether your school district is in compliance.

2. Educate yourself on HIV and Sexual Health
Research the basic facts about HIV and Sexual Health here. If you don't know much about HIV or sexual health in general, don't shy away from learning more. Admit that you need more information and intentionally seek it out. You are the best resource your child has when it comes to learning the truth about HIV and sexual health.

3. Preview your school district's HIV and sexual health materials.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, 37 states and the District of Columbia require school districts to involve parents in sex education, HIV education, or both. Twenty two states and the District of Columbia require that parents be notified that sex education or HIV education be provided. Typically, parents receive a notification that HIV and Sexual Health will be taught and an invitation to preview the materials. Attend this preview night so you can acquaint yourself with the information your child will be exposed to. If the materials are outdated, you can talk with your child about the inaccuracies and dispel any myths.

4. Discuss HIV, AIDS, and Sexual Health openly with your kids.
Make sure that HIV and sexual health are not taboo subjects. Obviously, keeping your child's age and developmental stage in mind is essential.

5. Be part of the solution.
If your state does not have a mandate, or you are dissatisfied with the materials your school district has adopted, email state legislators and call your state's Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to demand change. You can help push for state educational mandates by mobilizing other parents in your community to also write letters or make phone calls.

Currently, I am working on producing four HIV/AIDS educational videos for use in public school classrooms (for 5th, 6th, junior high, and high school). You can read more about the project here and here.