AFTER THE THREE RS, THE S-WORD — sex -- might be the next most common subject at Board of Education meetings.
At its meeting Wednesday, the board will discuss whether to extend to juniors and seniors education about the prevention of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
The meeting is at 9 a.m. Wednesday at North Carroll High. Board members contacted said they will keep an open mind until hearing from staff Wednesday.
Last month, the Liberty High School Parent, Student and Teachers Association president, Christine Centofanti, asked the board to consider strengthening its health curriculum for older high school students.
"This proposed plan is not completely on target," Centofanti said, referring to the Comprehensive Health Education Plan.
The plan details health education in grades K-12, showing that discussion of sex begins in the fourth grade. The last required course dealing with AIDS and its prevention, however, is in eighth grade.
The Liberty parents want more of that in later grades, saying itcould be incorporated with other related issues such as drug and alcohol awareness and decision-making.
"We need to teach our childrennow the skills that will protect them later," Centofanti told the board.
Although required health classes stop at ninth grade, some students may get further information on AIDS through elective courses such as marriage and parenting classes.
Linda Stromberg, AIDS case manager at the Carroll County Health Department, is often invited by health teachers to speak on birth control and disease prevention to both the underclassmen and older students.
The message seems to pack more of a punch with older students, she said.
"The ninth-grade classes, a lot of the time it's information they don't feel applies to them at that point," Stromberg said.
"The 11th-graders have a very specific concern about this issue -- they seem very involved. You have their undivided attention," Stromberg said.
"We always still emphasize abstinence," she said. She discusses condoms and spermicideas a "less-than-perfect" prevention tool against HIV, the AIDS virus.
"But if they're considering sex, then they must think about protection," she said.
Stromberg said the students often have misperceptions about how HIV is transmitted and are uninformed about how to use a condom effectively.
"A lot of them also don't realize HIV is in this county," she said, or they don't realize it is a concern for heterosexuals who don't use intravenous drugs.
They always ask herwhether there are any HIV-infected students in their school or in the county, and she always tells them she doesn't know, but that there probably are.
Because the time from infection to symptoms of AIDS can be seven to 12 years, she said, most high school students who areinfected probably won't know until years from now, when they may already have infected others.
For any discussion of sex in school, Carroll requires students to bring signed permission from their parents. While the state requires only that schools offer parents a chance to sign a slip to keep their student out of the classroom for those units, Carroll schools require the permission either way.
About 5 percent of parents say no, said Marjorie Lohnes, supervisor of home economics and health education.
One parent who said yes was Joseph DeLuca, whose son is a sophomore now at Liberty.
"The parents who say no are sticking their heads in the sand," said DeLuca, of Eldersburg.
"It's better coming from a teacher than from another kid -- that's my opinion," he said. "If the teen-age sex is happening, which obviously it is, the kids ought to be aware of what the repercussions are going to be."
The parents who show up at school board meetings to say they feel the information on disease prevention should come from home are probably not talking about it at home, or at least they're not talking about condoms, he said.
Even parents who do try to talk to their teen-age children about sex often don't get very far, hesaid.
"The easiest way for the kids is to blow it off and say, 'Oh, I know about all that,' and the conversation never gets in-depth,"DeLuca said.
"The teacher can present it on an impersonal basis,"he said, and eliminate the embarrassment of a one-on-one discussion.
When he brought up the subject with his own son after dinner one night, his son responded with a "Dad, do we really have to talk aboutthis?"
DeLuca said he persisted, and it turned out his son did have some wrong information.
Board President Cheryl A. McFalls said she felt the current health curriculum was a good one that does not need changing.
"I would lean toward more education," said member John D. Myers Jr. "In terms of when, I would have to look at some more data on when it's most appropriate."
Members Joseph D. Mish Jr., Ann M. Ballard and Carolyn L. Scott expressed concern that while more information is always better, there might not be room to add another required health course.
Mish said he would hope that if something is added, it can be incorporated into existing classes, while Scott said this could illustrate that some day the school year will have to be lengthened to include more material.
Ballard said AIDS awareness is prevalent in media, with rock stars stressing prevention.
"It's not something that if we don't teach it in school, they'll never hear it," Ballard said. "I think it's on all their minds."