Edwin Peggott remembers with alarm how careless he was with his sex life during high school. “I didn't know anything about AIDS,” he says. “I was doing all kinds of things.”
Now, at 19, he's wised up and “calmed down” but worries that too many other teens are making the same mistakes and may not be as lucky. As an advocate for Youth Organizers United (YOU), a nonprofit HIV/AIDS education group, he's part of a new campaign called “Hit the Schools.”
The group, whose members are all under 26, plans to lobby public high schools to follow the city's HIV/AIDS Education Mandate. Passed by the Board of Education in 1991, the regulation requires that all public high schools offer students six lessons a year on AIDS–from how it's transmitted to how to prevent it, or treat it–and to make condoms available.
Across the five boroughs, however, these lessons are few. According to a YOU survey of 500 city teens conducted last summer, only two students said their schools offered the six classes on AIDS each year.
“My high school has a really good reputation, but I never got any of the lessons,” says Jaron Cook, 18, a recent graduate of the High School of Art & Design.
(A guidance counselor at Cook's alma mater, who would not give her name, says the students learn about AIDS during the one semester of health class they take in high school. “Maybe that youngster was not present the day those lessons were given,” she says.)
Recent stats from the state Department of Health worry the young activists even more. Black and Hispanic teens account for half of the state's new HIV cases, agency officials have found, and most of those are in New York City. “When teenagers don't receive the six mandated lessons, they don't know how to protect themselves,” says Jerel Harewood, 17.
Many schools do have a program called SPARK, which circulates information on HIV and provides some short lessons on the virus, as well as on drugs and violence, during health class.
That, health experts say, is not enough. “You have less than 40 minutes to talk to these kids about HIV, STDs and sexuality,” says Lissette Marrero of the Adolescent AIDS Program at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. “Public high schools have to create a safe space where kids can go and talk about these things, or at least link them to community-based organizations that can do it.”
The city Department of Education did not return calls seeking comment.
But YOU's volunteers hope they will start to turn some heads soon. In mid-October, the group began circulating petitions to students at a dozen high schools around the city stating that they have not had lessons on AIDS. YOU hopes to collect at least 300 signatures from each school, which the young activists will then present to principals as well as to Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and state legislators in Albany.
“They fail to realize that by educating us, they help us educate our families and parents and sisters and whoever,” says Cook. “If they keep holding it back, it just means more people are going to get sick.”