When an eighth-grade girl recently sought counseling from a county health clinic, she claimed to have had 35 sexual partners, one of whommade her pregnant.
Barbara Hernan, a Health Department AIDS educator, offered that story Monday to the Board of Education in support of a student campaign for middle school instruction about condoms and other contraception.
The students believe the school system shouldn't wait until high school to provide students with information about "safe sex" precautions against the spread of AIDS.
"We are not urging the distribution of contraceptives. We are urging distribution of information," Bel Air High School senior Beth Dail told the school board.
Dail and several of her contemporary health classmates collected signatures from 653 Bel Air students, parents and teachers demanding earlier, more detailed information about preventing the spread of HIV, the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
The Harford County Regional Association of Student Councils endorsed that position Tuesday and will circulate student surveys to measure support for offeringAIDS education earlier.
Following a state mandate, the county includes AIDS as a subject in required science, health and social studies classes beginning in the fifth grade. Parents are notified before AIDS or other subjects concerning sex are taught, giving them the chance to excuse their children from attending those sessions.
But discussions of condoms or contraceptives to prevent AIDS or pregnancy donot begin until ninth-grade health classes.
Like other public school systems, the official county policy stresses abstinence as the only guaranteed safe sexual behavior.
Students involved in the campaign argue that their younger peers cannot wait until high school to learn that latex condoms are the strongest protection for the sexuallyactive.
"If you have sex in middle school, you're considered one of the cool students," Dail said Tuesday. "There are students beggingfor the knowledge. They're demanding to know."
The students said they support teaching abstinence but warned that the school system isgambling with children's lives by delaying education on "safe sex."
Since 1981, the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reportes 46 confirmed AIDS cases in the county. Of those, 27 have died.
"We're seeing young people -- 12, 13, 14 -- with sexually transmitted diseases in the clinics," Hernan said.
There is no breakdown onAIDS according to age group for the county.
But based on trends in county sexual behavior and national averages, Hernan estimated thatthe health department sees about one new teen-age AIDS patient per month, most of them 18 or 19 years old.
Statewide, fewer than one-half of 1 percent of AIDS cases are in the 13-to-19 age group. But 21 percent fall under the 20-to-29 age group, and AIDS can have a 10-year incubation period.
Teen-agers receive counseling at county clinics from health, social and welfare workers and can
also learn about pregnancy options, including adoption or abortion.
But the school system restricts what students may learn about sexual behavior, said Hernan, a regional AIDS educator for Harford, Cecil and Kent counties.
"I can't talk about abortion or homosexuality or promote condom use," she said.
Other area school systems including Baltimore and Baltimore, Howard and Kent counties begin discussions of condoms inthe eighth grade.
"We do the plumbing -- male and female -- in grade five, human reproduction in grade six and take the eighth grade program through contraception," Baltimore County schools health coordinator John Heck said Tuesday.
But he added that it's important to combine early contraceptive education with constant reinforcement of the value of responsible behavior.
"You want to grow up and make choices? Here's some choices right now. Make some choices for the future and not use drugs or have premature sex," he said. "It's not like we bring in the idea of condoms out of the clear blue sky. It's a natural progression."
The Bel Air students intend to present a plan to the school board's curriculum committee next month that would create a peer counseling program between high schools and middle schools as part of earlier contraceptive education.
Bel Air senior Shelly Paradise said students need to hear from each other the importance of using condoms.
"A lot of guys don't use condoms because they say it's more romantic," she said. "Are you proving your love when you say, 'I don't care if you catch AIDS?' "
The student campaign could trigger an overall review of county AIDS education, school board member Anne Sterling said.
Such a review could require a difficult debate over the role the school system should play, board member Ron Eaton said.
"From where do we find our values? At what point do parents disjoint themselves from the values of their children and turn it over to the school system?," he asked.
"I don't think you can take the two apart."