Susan Steele, Stemmers Run Middle School science teacher, couldn't have hoped to time a lesson for greater impact.
Just as Earvin "Magic" Johnson's startling announcement that he is HIV-infected was beginning to sink in last Friday, Ms. Steele's seventh graders presented a mock trial to decide whether a dentist with AIDS should be allowed to practice.
The students in Ms. Steele's class based their arguments on material from current newspaper and magazine articles. The proceedings -- which featured a wan, pale-looking "AIDS patient" in a wheelchair -- ended with the conclusion that the dentist should be allowed to practice if he used universal health precautions and informed patients of his condition.
The assignment for the mock trial, of course, came well before anyone ever had thought about Magic Johnson in the AIDS context: It didn't take a basketball superstar to get an AIDS curriculum in the schools. But the timing certainly made her students pay attention, Ms. Steele said.
With a popular public figure once again drawing attention to AIDS, schools are going to take advantage of the interest.
"It's made it real for a lot of the kids," said Patricia Brownlee, AIDS education facilitator for Baltimore City schools. "Magic is a class act and he's made a truly big impact. Some kids are saying, 'If he can get it, I can get it.' "
But the problem with all this, say some educators, is that knowledge does not necessarily translate to changed behavior.
"I think they know pretty clearly the behavior that transmits HIV and how to prevent the transmission," said Pat Johnson, AIDS prevention specialist for Howard County schools. Whether they're changing their See AIDS, 5C, Col. 4AIDS, from 1Cbehavior or not is a lot trickier."
"The kids are very well informed," agreed Mickey Applegarth, field supervisor for the Young Adult AIDS Prevention Project of HERO, the AIDS education organization. "They listen, but they feel immortal. It's up to them whether they understand how serious this really is."
Tyrone Harding, also of HERO, takes an HIV prevention sexuality curriculum to recreation centers and other agencies that work with teen-agers. "The kids know how it's transmitted and how it's not," he said. "The problem is, getting them to have this knowledge and modify their behavior."
Or, as Candace Cooper, a 12-year-old student at Fallstaff Middle School, put it, "People go on having sex with someone so they can be popular."
But, she added, she thinks that seeing something like this happen to someone as prominent as Magic Johnson could make a difference and affect behavior.
"I think a lot of people are going to wise up and realize they can get AIDS," Candace said. "Girls should keep their skirts down, and boys should keep their pants up."
The State Department of Education mandates that information about AIDS be taught at least once in every elementary school, middle school and high school in the state. The city and most counties do more than that, incorporating facts about AIDS in health, science, home economics and social studies classes as early as the third grade. (As part of the state guidelines, parents are notified before AIDS or other topics related to sexual behavior will be taught, and are given the opportunity to take their children out of the classroom.)
"Everything is age-appropriate," Ms. Brownlee said of the city's curriculum. "We don't talk about condoms in the third grade, we talk about building self-esteem and having self-control. By the sixth grade we're ready to bring up condoms as a method of disease prevention, although we emphasize that the first method is abstinence."
Some students still have misconceptions about how HIV-infection is spread, said Gary Dunkleberger, director of curriculum for Carroll County schools. "Toilet seats come up, water fountains come up," he has found in talking to students. "That's why we began our AIDS-ed
ucation program in the fourth grade. We wanted fourth graders to know, this is not something that you really have a reason to fear. As we move on with older students we begin to emphasize the message, this is something to protect yourself from."
Sarah Mullins, a health teacher at Southeast Middle School, in the city, also emphasizes to her students that knowledge can make fear unnecessary, but it doesn't necessarily make an impression.
"When I taught this last year, the kids were scared," she said. "They wanted to know everything they could, but it's hard to know how it affects them once they leave the classroom. We promote abstinence and hope they take it home and listen to it, but we also talk about condoms.
"Some of the kids think it can't happen to them and some get super-paranoid," she added. "They say, 'Can I get it this way? Can I get it that way?' These are the ones who are talking about toilet seats and water fountains. Unfortunately, sometimes these are the same ones who aren't going to do a thing to change their sexual behavior."