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Improving sexual health awareness in schools

shutterstock_141890479Little did I know seven years ago when I was finishing a full-time career and retiring as an elementary school principal in Cary, IL, that I would be now working on a project in Broward County, FL, that focuses on the sexual health and safety of 13- to 21-year-olds in our community. Our schools are now facing major decisions in regard to the health and sexual education of our students.

In my role as a research technician for the ICFI/Center for Disease Control project with Broward County Public Schools called DASH — Division of Adolescent and School Health Enhanced Evaluation Survey — the following information comes to the surface:

  • Based on 2010 figures, 21 percent of all new HIV/AIDS cases nationwide come from the 13- to 21-year-old population.
  • From 2007-09, HIV infections diagnoses increased 10 percent among persons aged 15 to 19 years and 33 perecent among those aged 20 to 24 years.
  • Teens and young adults have the highest rates of many sexually transmitted diseases of any age group. Half of the 19 million STDs that occur annually are among those under 25.

Although part of our work focuses on the general student population in Broward schools, our particular part of the study concerns HIV/AIDS incidence among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Latino and African-American youth.

In the first months of the  2014-15 school year, we will be conducting a “DASH Youth Health and School Climate” survey with 16,000 9th to 12th grade students at seven Broward high schools. The findings from this survey will help us in developing education programs that focus on student and family awareness, prevention and treatment. The overall project goals include increasing the number of teens who are tested and treated for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, decreasing sexual risk behaviors, and reducing absenteeism and school dropouts due to HIV conditions.

As the father of two sons in their thirties, the step-grandfather and great uncle of 19 youth close to or in this 13- to 21-year age range, I am daunted by the potential impact that HIV/AIDs is having on the youth in my family and youth in general. The kindergarten students that were part of my world in my final year as principal are now seventh graders and 13 years old. They are part of the statistics in these figures.

Although I can look at the figures and say that 75 percent of the 13- to 21-year-old population are not affected, I consider that each of those students will likely be connected to someone who is infected or facing decisions regarding their sexual behavior that could lead to them becoming infected. These connections could be social in nature, but it is likely that some of these adolescents will be affected in emotional ways (knowing someone who is infected) or in sexual ways. They could be either knowledgeable about a partner’s status or, even as likely, be involved sexually with an individual who is  unknowingly HIV positive.  Our survey will help us to determine the rates of sexual activity among teens and with what frequency teens are involved in opposite gender sexual activity or same-sex gender activity.

How does my work impact the readership of this NLU blog? Health issues and the aspects of sexual awareness and knowledge that are or are not imbedded in our schools’ curricula affect all public, private and charter schools and districts across the country. When students become infected by sexually transmitted diseases, they are less likely to attend school. Their faltering attendance rates results in lower rates of graduation. In addition, our initial research here in Broward schools shows us that some families expel the young people from their homes when they are known to engage in sexual behavior, become pregnant or infected with sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS. This homelessness of youth exacerbates the situation and decreases further the students’ desires to attend school.

NLU is noted for its excellence in regard to education. Our students’ sexual maturation, knowledge and health impacts their lives as students and later as adults.

I look forward to sharing the results of our survey and the development of programs here in Broward County with those who read this blog. I believe that our work will have an influence in schools and districts around the country.

Kevin O'Connor

About Kevin O'Connor

Kevin O'Connor is a retired school principal and advocate for LGBTQ students. He received his Doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction from NLU in 1998.