AIDS quilt in school, but debate is restricted Students are given limited information

November 12, 1995|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,SUN STAFF

The AIDS Memorial Quilt has come to Bel Air High School, but not many people can talk about it.

At the high school, teachers can discuss AIDS with the school's 1,300 students, but school administrators have prohibited them from using the quilt to talk about the danger of high-risk sexual practices. Condoms can be mentioned only in connection with birth control.

Elsewhere in the district, teachers are free to tell their students that the quilt is at Bel Air High. But they can't say anything else.

"It's the way the regulations are written," said Donald R. Morrison, spokesman for the Harford County school system. "Any time there is any discussion of alternative lifestyles, sexual practices or information of other sensitive nature, we are required to direct students to talk to their parents. These [topics] are for the home."

Harford teachers are bound by guidelines issued by the state and by the county school system's Family Life and Human Development Committee. One state regulation, for example, says that schools must give parents the opportunity to remove their children from AIDS education classes.

Some teachers -- and parents -- at Bel Air High want students to learn more about acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

"We are working to get the message across, but there are things we can't say, things kids really need to know," said Joan Hayden, a home economics teacher at the school. "The best we can do is steer them toward their parents, knowing full well that in many cases the parents are not going to discuss these issues."

Ronald R. Eaton, a member of the county board of education and its immediate past president, said he does not think the guidelines are too strict. He said that, until now, he had heard no objections to them.

"I would not want to diminish the authority of parents in dealing with their children," Mr. Eaton said. "We don't want to be put in a position of teaching values that rightfully and necessarily are the role of parents."

Mrs. Hayden and health teacher Valerie Cooper requested the quilt from the San Francisco-based Names Project Foundation, which provides educational materials about AIDS. Bel Air High, the first Maryland school to participate in the foundation's high school program, was supplied with a 12-foot-square panel of the quilt.

Begun in 1987, the quilt has become a symbol of those who have died from AIDS. Now the size of 18 football fields, it is divided into sections that travel to as many as 300 places each year, foundation spokesman Scott Williams said.

The quilt illustrates the dangers of contracting AIDS in a way statistics can't, he said. "Each square of the quilt has been made by someone who lost someone they loved. It could be a friend or a spouse or a lover. The quilt makes it very, very personal."

More than 80 high schools will display quilt panels this year, he said. This is the first year the foundation has lent panels and educational materials to high schools.

The educational program is left up to individual schools.

At Bel Air High, a team of 21 educators and parents met to determine the program's content. The team has invited a speaker with the human immunodeficiency virus to talk to students tomorrow and to an open house of students, parents and community members from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday. The quilt panel can be seen from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. tomorrow through Friday.

The AIDS quilt project has the backing of the school's PTSA group, which solicited money and materials from businesses. The school system has sent out news releases about the quilt and is publicizing it in its newsletter.

"If a student on his own reads the newspaper and finds out about it, he can go on his own. That is up to him," Mr. Morrison said. "But teachers can't encourage him to go or take him there.

"Bel Air High has been prepared, the kids have been prepared, and the teachers have received [training] so they know what they can and can't say. The problem with other schools running with it is that their teachers have not been prepared," he said.

"The quilt program has nothing to do with sexuality," said Charles M. Jensen, a helping teacher in health education who works at schools throughout the county. He said Bel Air High's weeklong AIDS program will focus on awareness, not prevention.

Mrs. Hayden, the home economics teacher, says some parents will be upset because of the limited amount of information teachers can give their children.

"I think this is going to open the eyes of some of the parents who have not been aware of what constraints we are working under," she said. "When they find out, they are going to start asking some questions and making some changes in the education their children are getting."

Dee Polek, who has a son at Bel Air High, said the schools should do "everything possible" to prevent the spread of AIDS.

"We can't stick our heads in the sand. At some point our children are going to make their own decisions -- and not necessarily the ones we would make for them -- and I want them to have all the information available."

Bel Air High Principal William M. Ekey said the majority of parents, such as Mrs. Polek, have given their children permission to take part in the classes that discussed AIDS. He said he had received no complaints about the quilt or the AIDS program.

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