Yesterday’s Washington Post reported some good news. The District of Columbia’s school system will now offer free STD testing in all high schools. A pilot program last year at eight high schools in D.C. found that 13 percent of about 3,000 students tested positive for an STD, mostly gonorrhea or chlamydia, according to the D.C. Department of Health.
Chad Ferguson, deputy chief of youth engagement for the D.C. schools, said the tests are administered by taking groups of 15 to 20 students at a time to the restroom area. The students are given paper bags containing urine collection cups and enter bathroom stalls. Once they get in the stalls, they can choose whether or not to provide urine samples. All the students return the paper bags, so other students do not necessarily know who did or did not provide a sample.
Test results were provided confidentially…and the city paid for treatment at the school or an STD clinic. Students were counseled about STDs and HIV prevention, were given notification cards to inform partners of the positive diagnosis and were encouraged to share the results with their parents.
I think this is a tremendous step forward in helping to prevent the spread of STDs. Anyone over the age of 12 can be tested without parental notification, but teenagers are very unlikely to seek out information and testing on their own. Bringing it directly to them is key.
There are surprisingly few naysayers–at least, few who would go on the record with the Post. While there was some “well, what about their parents?” fussing, it was mixed with the acknowledgement that whatever parents are doing now obviously ain’t working:
“We have Third World statistics in terms of our HIV issues, and from the HIV perspective, we do need to find a way to identify students so that we can help them,” said William Lockridge, a member of the State Board of Education. But he said parents need to be involved. “Right now, if you play sports in a public school, you have to get permission from your parents. If you take a field trip, you have to get permission from your parents. Why would it be any less for this? . . . Only if the parent gives the consent upfront would I do this.”
D.C. Council member David A. Catania offered a different viewpoint. “This isn’t necessarily intended to comfort adults,” said Catania, who chairs the health committee. “I don’t think you turn a blind eye and pretend these problems don’t exist.”
Catania said he has not heard much community opposition to the testing. “In this regard, I find our population to be extremely secure,” he said. “I’m not condoning this behavior. I don’t think young people are equipped for the consequences of engaging in sex, but the fact is that they do.”
When you have a public health crisis, particularly among children, community leaders are morally obligated to tackle it. Unfortunately, when the disease in question is sexually transmitted, those leaders often do nothing and hide behind moralizing and condemnation instead. This new program in D.C. is one of the very few examples I’ve seen of leaders embracing practical, effective, non-judgmental solutions. You have to meet the problem where it is, not where you think it should be, and that’s what they are (finally) doing. It had to reach a crisis stage before they could get the funding and support for it, but thankfully, for once someone is getting it right on this issue by making health–not “values”–a top concern.