Why do Sarasota County middle school students say they’re learning less about HIV/AIDS?

Photo by Norman Schimmel

Overall, the results of a risk behavior survey among Sarasota County middle school students, conducted last fall and released in late June, is full of good news. The percentage of students who said they smoked tobacco declined from 30 to 17 over the past decade; the percentage of those who said they had considered suicide dropped from 26 to 8; even the percentage of those who said they had tried prescription drugs for a recreational high declined.

But one number stands out: Only 57% of respondents said they “had been taught about HIV infection or AIDS in school,” down from 72% in 2003-2004. Why do students say they’re learning less about HIV/AIDS?

“Good question,” says Sherri Reynolds, the school system’s supervisor of Pupil Support Services. Turns out nobody has a definitive answer. Reynolds floats a couple of possibilities: new FCAT requirements that may be cutting into health education time, or maybe staff turnover in the health curriculum area.

The Human Growth and Development Program works like this: Teachers who are comfortable teaching the subject and qualified to do so lead the presentation. If they’re not comfortable or trained, they then contact the school’s registered nurse, who will either lead the discussion or reach out to the Sarasota County Health Department to have an expert come into the classroom.

According to Dianne Shipley, a health educator and media liaison with Sarasota County Health and Human Services, “there is no specific HIV/AIDS curriculum” delivered to students. “A discussion about HIV/AIDS is incorporated into a general presentation on STDs and safe behaviors,” she writes via email. “Disease Intervention Specialists, when invited to speak in the classroom, educate students on abstinence, risk reduction strategies and the medical and health issues of STDs and HIV/AIDS. They also discuss the importance and significance of being tested if anyone feels they may be at risk for one of these diseases.”

In a health department presentation outline Shipley provides, HIV/AIDS is the third topic covered, right after the intro and a general outline on STDs and abstinence.

Shipley writes that the curriculum “has been consistent through the years,” with occasional updates based on “the latest health and medical information.” According to data she provides, the number of students the Health Department is educating has only increased year by year. In 2008, the department taught 18 classes and reached 1,288 students. Already in 2012, 40 classes have been taught, and 870 students have attended. (The numbers did dip significantly in 2009 because, Shipley writes, the department “experienced staffing challenges,” but they rebounded quickly in 2010.)

According to Sarasota County Schools Communications Specialist Scott Ferguson, it’s up to the Florida Department of Education to establish “learning benchmarks in various subject areas,” but the details of the curricula are controlled locally. Shipley writes that “presentations are geared to specific age groups and are evaluated by the adults in attendance,” which could mean “teachers, principals, school nurses and/or parents.”

“Keep in mind that individual responses to survey questions may be affected by many factors,” Ferguson writes, adding:

When a student is asked whether he or she is learning about HIV or AIDS in school, the response may also reflect what the student is learning from sources such as the media, peers and family members. For example, a higher percentage of middle school students reporting that they were learning about these topics in school in the early to mid-2000s may reflect that there was more discussion of these topics in the wider society during that time, as well as students’ perceptions of what they were learning in school. I don’t have any data showing that this is the case; it’s just a possibility you may want to consider.

Although there’s no definite answer as to why middle school students responded the way they did, Reynolds says she’s working with school leaders to make the presentations “more concrete in the schedule” for the upcoming year. “We are looking to make it part of the instructional schedule for the year so that it doesn’t get missed,” Reynolds says.

According to Reynolds, the schools take the results of the survey seriously. “It’s considered a validated and reliable survey,” she says, “so with the self-reporting, a lot of the data isn’t available elsewhere.”

The schools have been conducting the reviews since 1996 and have tweaked policies before when they noticed numbers that were headed in the wrong direction. And, as the bulk of this year’s report shows, those efforts have paid off. Could HIV/AIDS education be another success story? We’ll find out next year.