After months of doing and redoing, cussing and discussing, adding and subtracting, polishing and pruning, Utah has AIDS curricula for its schoolchildren - almost.
The State Board of Education accepted the long-awaited curricula Friday with the caveat that the Utah attorney general first be asked to resolve the last and most persistently sticky issue - whether teachers may answer, without parental consent, spontaneous student questions related to contraception.The attorney general's office also will be asked to assist the state Office of Education in devising a sample parental-consent form that will be consistent with Utah's law prohibiting discussion of contraception without parental consent.
The board, in fact, approved two sets of curricula, one for standard use in Utah classrooms and a second, more explicit one for use with students who have been identified as being at risk for acquired immune deficiency syndrome or whose parents prefer they receive more detailed information. The state board asked for both because it administers education programs for students in prison, in custody or in special programs in which high-risk behavior is already apparent.
Only specially trained teachers, working with representatives of health departments, will be allowed to teach the high-risk materials.
The curricula are incorporated into the state's Healthy Lifestyles program, with information for children at all levels. Specific information regarding AIDS, its spread and high-risk behaviors is confined to the upper grades. Responsible behavior toward oneself and society is the basis for all of the instruction.
The curricula stress parental involvement throughout the process, including making materials available for parents to teach AIDS facts to their children at home if desired.
The issue of teacher responses to questions posed by students was the most hotly debated issue as the curricula prepared by the education office's staff underwent final revision. Teachers may not elicit comments or questions covered under the parental consent provisions, but how to deal with unsolicited questions could not be resolved, putting the matter in the hands of the attorney general's office.
As presented by staff members to the board's Curriculum and Supportive Education Committee, the proposal suggests that teachers faced with spontaneous comments or questions from students could respond briefly, factually, objectively and "in harmony . . . with the policy regarding the importance of marriage and the family, abstinence from sexual activity before marriage and fidelity after marriage."
A teacher's failure to respond to a student's questions may make it appear the instructor tacitly agrees with certain positions, staff members noted.
However, board member M. Richard Maxfield said he was concerned that the provision allowing teachers to respond "gives them permission to sidestep the law. We could mislead teachers into a legal trap. . . . I don't want a loophole wide enough to drive a truck through."
Darlene C. Hutchison, chairwoman of the subcommittee dealing with the AIDS issue, said she is concerned that school districts would not like to use the high-risk curriculum because of social implications.
Teachers or school counselors who are aware of students already engaged in high-risk behavior would contact the student's parents, and the parents would decide if they wanted the more explicit instruction for their child.
"We don't want to label youngsters as being high-risk," said Scott Hess, educational specialist who deals with the Healthy Lifestyle program. "We need to stress that it is the material we are referring to as high-risk, not the kids."
The curricula addressed the major concerns of conservative parent-rights groups that have closely followed the development of the materials. However, they, too, wanted to be certain the question of how teachers deal with spontaneous contraceptive questions is addressed and were supportive of an attorney general's review.
Joy Beech of Family Alert said the board should be careful in its use of the phrase "responsible behavior," which was considered for slogans that will be used in the AIDS instruction, since it has been adopted by many advocates of the "safe sex" position relative to AIDS.
The curricula adopted by the board Friday, in fact, emphasize that "safe sex" - use of condoms, primarily - is a misnomer and that the only guarantee of safety where AIDS is concerned lies in refraining from the sexual activities implicated in its transmission and avoiding intravenous drug use.