High School HIV Scare Alarms Community

Every parent knows how schools can be breeding grounds for the flu, or the common cold. But parents at Normandy High School in St. Louis, Mo., were shocked when they received a letter saying their children may have been exposed to HIV. A roundtable, including Stanton Lawrence, superintendent for the Normandy School District, discusses the case and parents' growing concern.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, it's almost Halloween, but there's nothing scarier right now than the economy. Our Mocha Moms talk about how to celebrate the holiday without spending a frightening amount of money.

But first, most parents expect their kids to come home with a note every now and again, warning about an outbreak of lice or the flu. But earlier this month, parents at Normandy High School in St. Louis County, Missouri, got a letter saying that their children may have been exposed to something far more serious, HIV. One infected individual told officials as many as 50 students might have been exposed. In response, school officials encouraged students to get tested, and they set up a confidential testing station at school. But now they face questions over whether they unwittingly stigmatized their students.

Joining us to talk about this are Stanton Lawrence, the superintendent for the Normandy School District, Sylvester Brown - he's a columnist for the St. Louis Post Dispatch - and also with us is Angel Brown, the manager of HIV and STI prevention for Advocates for Youth. That's a nonprofit organization here in the Washington, D.C., area to help young people make informed and responsible decisions about their sexual health. I welcome you all to the program. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Ms. ANGEL BROWN (Program Manager, LGBT, Advocates for Youth): Thank you.

Superintendent STANTON LAWRENCE (Superintendent, Normandy School District, St. Louis, Missouri): Thanks for having us.

Mr. SYLVESTER BROWN (Columnist, St. Louis Post Dispatch): It's good to be here.

MARTIN: Superintendent Lawrence, if we could start with you. How did you find out that some of these students may potentially have been exposed to HIV? Did the infected individual come forward?

Supt. LAWRENCE: No. Actually, Michel, we were contacted by the St. Louis County Department of Health. And they basically shared with us that there was an infected individual, who they interviewed, who in fact indicated that he may have had contact with between 17 to 50 students at the high school.

MARTIN: And then, was it your decision to send letters to the parents informing them and to set up the, sort of, testing regimen? Did you have any protocol to follow here, or were you just, kind of, flying by?

Supt. LAWRENCE: No, we didn't have a protocol, but we had - we used what we call common sense and tried to do what was best for the students. We sort of strategized with the county Department of Health and talked about what would be the best way to proceed and to move in the best interests of the children. And so the decision to send the letter home was certainly my decision, and it was supported by our board of education.

MARTIN: How many of the kids decided to get tested, do you know? You have a lot - what? - 1300 students in that particular high school?

Supt. LAWRENCE: We have closer - closer to 1250 actually. And most of those students were tested. I don't think we're putting an actual number out there, but I would think close to 90 percent of those students were tested.

MARTIN: How did they react to that? How did that go? Were the kids upset? Were they happy to have the opportunity to be tested, what? How was the atmosphere?

Supt. LAWRENCE: Well, surprisingly, our students are extremely, extremely resilient. The day after we sent letters home, as I moved from classroom to classroom, as I normally do, students were engaged as they routinely are. And during the testing phase, students were just talking among themselves as they do. I think they dealt with it extremely well. I don't think adults dealt with it as well as the students did.

MARTIN: All right, I want to hear more about that in a minute. But Sylvester Brown, I want to bring you into the conversation. You expressed some concern in a column that you wrote about how this was handled. What are your concerns?

Mr. BROWN: Well, my concern was how this story was being reported and how the public was responding to the story. St. Louis, you know, a great city, but we're not exactly, you know, the bastion of cultural enlightenment here. So, I saw a lot of negative comments, really ugly comments, and it kept coming back to me that these are children. And yes, 50 kids may have been exposed to the HIV/AIDS virus, but that leaves 1250 kids who probably are not. And it was just, to have all these kids painted with one brush, it really bothered me. I thought there was a need to bring some perspective to the story.

MARTIN: But what ugly comments are you talking about? Give me an example.

Mr. BROWN: There was a comment of, one person wrote on a response to one of our articles at the Post Dispatch, where they said that, you know, I don't care what - this is kind of paraphrasing - I don't care what happens to those people as long as they don't infect the right race. And there was other comments along that vein, you know, that these are African-Americans and this is what they do. You know, the same - that they're animals and, you know, it's just the same ugly rhetoric...

MARTIN: Became a racial thing.

Mr. BROWN: Yeah, became racial thing.

MARTIN: But you know, there was also a report that some of the kids felt that they had been stigmatized. One - it was reported in the paper that one girl's - the boy who was going to take her to the prom canceled, that there were questions about whether other teams wanted to play the Normandy football team. Superintendent, is that true, to your - Superintendent Lawrence, did that happen? How do you respond to that?

Supt. LAWRENCE: Well, I think, what this does more than anything else, Michel, it provides us an opportunity to educate folks, not only our students, about HIV, how it's transmitted, how to protect yourself against it. But also other folks who may be misled and misinformed about this virus. I think we understand the modes of transmission are blood, semen, infected needles, and contact sports are not a mode of transmission, from what we understand. So, this provided us an opportunity to enlighten folks and to help them to understand that there's not a worry about contracting it on the football field.

MARTIN: Angel Brown, I want to bring you into the conversation because you work with kids, this is, you know, what you do all day, every day, working on issues of sexuality. Have you seen something like this before, where it's been rumored or confirmed that, say, one student or somebody connected to a group of kids has HIV and that it kind of spreads? What's your experience with this?

Ms. BROWN: Well, personally, I haven't seen an example such as this. But I think what the situation at Normandy puts us in mind of is the importance of recognizing the impact or the effect that social networks play in sexual reproductive health. And in public health, a social network is a network of people that are connected sexually. And Normandy gives us a great example of between 1,200 and 1,300 young people that may be connected sexually. And that is how we can easily look at the number of - you know, you have John, who may have had sex with Dana, who - Dana then had sex with Tim, and that connects John and Tim together sexually. So, I think this is a great example and a great learning moment for all of us.

MARTIN: But speaking about that, is anybody surprised by the idea that one infected individual, because to this point there's only been one individual identified as having been - or confirmed as having been infected. But one infected individual may have exposed somewhere between 17 and 50 people - who's a high-school-age kid. Now, Angel, tell me, what does that say?

Ms. BROWN: Well, my first thought is that, that means that people are not practicing safe behaviors. If that is protecting themselves sexually using latex barriers, condoms, dental dams, etcetera, female condoms. Or if it is about whether or not they're using clean needles, if they're sharing needles, and what we're looking at is how HIV can be easily transmitted, in theory, if people are not practicing safe sex behaviors.

MARTIN: But we're 25 years into this epidemic. Does it surprise you to know that it, you know, these kids were all born after HIV/AIDS was identified as a specific disease. And presumably after public education efforts began. So, is it surprising to you that kids seem to be so unaware or not committed to safe sex practices?

Ms. BROWN: Unfortunately, no. Public-health awareness campaigns aren't enough. What we need is effective, healthy parent/child communication, about good relationships and about taking care of your sexual health. We also need, in many communities, a response from faith institutions, and we - as well as support from school districts, to make sure that we have comprehensive sex education inside of the schools, which includes information, not only about HIV, pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections, but also about abstinence, should they choose not to have - engage - in sexual activity.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News, and we're speaking with Angel Brown, Sylvester Brown and Stanton Lawrence about the recent discussion of HIV/AIDS at Normandy High School near St. Louis, Missouri. What about you, Superintendent Lawrence? Do you have any thoughts about the fact that this one individual may have exposed this many people to HIV/AIDS? Did - have you learned something about the behavior of students that you perhaps did not know before?

Supt. LAWRENCE: No, I've worked with high-school-age students for a long time. I've previously been a high school principal in the Houston area. And this scenario of one individual potentially exposing himself to 50, I think that scenario could play itself out in a number of ways. I think what it does tell us is we have to be very forthright in communicating to young people, and also have some outreach with homes. The fact that Angel Brown mentions faith-based communities, I have a meeting today with several pastors to initiate some long-range educational planning and awareness in our community.

MARTIN: And can I ask you about your reaction to what Sylvester Brown was reporting, that there are people who - and you know, we have no way of knowing, sort of, how widespread these sort of points of view are - but the fact that individuals that have been responding to the story were posting comments to the newspaper's websites suggesting that this is a racial thing and that these kids needed to be isolated. And what's your response to that? Had you heard this kind of thing? And what's your response to that?

Supt. LAWRENCE: Well, I think when people are blogging or posting comments, that's one thing, but when you have folks who are professional journalists - print media, broadcast media, but particularly print media - misrepresenting, intentionally, the facts in a situation like this, that type of shameless sensationalism goes far beyond the boundaries of responsible journalism with integrity. That's what really has shocked us. We've found news headlines that said 50 students at Normandy High School infected with HIV. And that really, really does our young people a disservice and causes them to feel terrible in an already tough situation.

MARTIN: And what are you doing to respond to that? Have the kids come to talk to you about it, or...

Supt. LAWRENCE: We've talked - we're engaging our children in conversations but we also have engaged a gentleman, Doug Hochstedler, who has been supporting us and responding to these inaccurate media reports. What we found is that most media outlets try to be responsible, and I think try to get the story - certainly the story needs to be gotten out. I think it's the approach you take, when you take into account these are young people, these are children and they have lives, and they are real human beings. And we need to be very, very sensitive to this fact.

MARTIN: And Sylvester Brown, what, if anything, would you like the school officials to have done differently? I mean, on the one hand it seems to me they did have a duty to tell the community that they needed to go out and get tested, and that they needed to be more mindful of safe sex practices, and so forth. On the other hand, it does, sort of, raise this whole question of how the community is. What, if anything, do you think they should have done differently? And have you learned anything about the way kids are operating sexually that perhaps you weren't aware of before?

Mr. BROWN: Yeah, I went back and I did some research, and there has been herpes outbreaks, there's been tuberculosis outbreaks, syphilis outbreaks. So, like you, I was ask - I was looking for protocol. What I found was that, when it came to HIV/AIDS, there is no protocol. So, it's not just the school officials. I would call for a regional summit that brings in the health department, public education, and also the media, to see how we should handle this issue in the future, because chances are it will happen again.

The public-health director actually mentioned a number, number 50. I don't think that was necessary. I don't think it was necessary to put that number out there. I think some more thought should have gone into how this is handled. Should it be a public event? Should the whole community know that we're sending out 1,300 letters? Should we put the number out there? You know, I think there needs to be a more coordinated effort on all of us, the media, the public health department and public schools, on how we're going to deal with this crisis in the future. And also, one other thing, we need to really look at the education system. And Dr. Lawrence, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that this ABC program, this abstinence-focus program, needs to be updated. These kids need to know about real-life, sexual - the ramifications from sexual activities.

MARTIN: Well, that's a good question. Superintendent, can you clarify that? What kind of sexual education or reproductive health education or sexual health education do the kids typically receive in this district?

Mr. BROWN: Well, we have a curriculum that's called - it was previously Abstinence by Choice, and now it's called About Better Choices. And basically, what that curriculum focuses on, and really stimulates conversations around, are not only sexual behavior of young people, but any other types of real-life experiences that young people tend to have that could lead to some difficulty, whether it's drug use, alcohol abuse, or any number of factors. It does, however, touch upon HIV education and STDs, and tries to encourage students to be abstinent first.

MARTIN: But I mean, I understand it's abstinence-focused, but is there practical information about, as Angel was talking about, the use of protective measures like condoms and dental dams? And is that practical information provided?

Mr. BROWN: I can't say with any certainty. I do know that the values that are predominant in our community. We tend to live in communities that are - that have a real, real strong connection to the faith-based community. And I think any message that would tell students anything other than abstinence would really, really create a backlash that we wouldn't be ready for. I think - well, I was asked about whether or not we were handing out condoms. I would never consider that in the community where we are because that's something that would be considered endorsing sexual behavior.

MARTIN: I see. Well, finally, Superintendent, if - just very briefly, if you would, do you have any sense that his has been a wakeup call for the students? And what about for the rest of the community? And I want to ask each of you this question - the rest of you this question, as well.

Supt. LAWRENCE: I think it's a wakeup call, not only for our students and our community, but it's a wakeup call for our nation. I think Mr. Brown hit the nail on the head when he said this is the first, it won't be the last. I think we've, in fact, been forced to establish a protocol, and that's why we were very thoughtful and purposeful, and deliberate in our thinking about how to approach this. But certainly a wakeup call is there, and I think it just stimulates a very healthy discussion about how we approach this in the future.

MARTIN: Angel Brown, I want to give you the final thought. We only have about a minute left. What do you - what would you hope that young people, particularly, would draw from this incident? And also adults, I guess.

Ms. BROWN: Absolutely. You know, the hope is that both adults and young people take away from this that it is extremely important that we take measures to be healthy and take care of our bodies, as well as our minds. And I think that we do everyone a disservice if we do not give appropriate information that includes comprehensive - well, that includes abstinence information, as well as ways that young people can protect themselves, if they choose to engage in sexual activities.

MARTIN: And, Sylvester Brown, we have exactly 30 seconds left. Final thought from you. What would you want people to draw from this?

Mr. BROWN: I think we should focus more on the children. I think we put them in a very awkward position. The children should not be in this position. It's on us, as adults, to take the lead on this issue and to protect these children. And that's the last what I have to say. We need to protect these children.

MARTIN: We have to leave it there. Sylvester Brown is a columnist for the St. Louis Post Dispatch. And Stanton Lawrence is the superintendent for Normandy School District. They were both kind enough to join us from member station KWMU in St. Louis. Angel Brown is the manager of HIV and STI prevention for Advocates for Youth. It's a nonprofit organization to help young people making informed and responsible decisions about their reproductive and sexual health. And she was kind enough to join us here, in our Washington studios. I thank you all so much.

Ms. BROWN: Thank you.

Mr. BROWN: Thank you.

Supt. LAWRENCE: Thank you.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.