The Unwanted Test

It wasn't part of the school curriculum, and for one girl who is HIV-positive, it was a bad idea

A tenth-grader at G. Holmes Braddock High School has been keeping a secret from her fellow students: She is HIV-positive. It is her private burden, one she has been shouldering since she was a little girl. But Brandy (not her real name) had a moment of panic a couple of weeks before the school year ended. A group came to Braddock High and tested more than a hundred students for the virus. Even though the testing was voluntary, it didn't feel that way to Brandy. She was afraid other students would wonder about her if she refused to take the test. "I already knew I had it so I didn't want to take it, but I felt like I couldn't say no," she asserts. "They made it seem like it was part of the class."

Brandy came home from school upset and told her mother, who was dismayed there had been no parental notification for a procedure as invasive as drawing a student's blood. She called the school but says officials claimed not to know anything about it. There's a good reason for that. According to school district officials, HIV testing is almost never performed at schools. The exception is that testing does occasionally occur in schools with full-service health clinics. "It's not our policy to do testing at school sites," says Jacquelyn White, district supervisor for HIV/AIDS education. The district's own Website, which lists its policies and procedures regarding HIV education and testing, clearly advises employees to refer students to the county health department if they want to be tested or feel they may be at risk.

So what happened? According to district officials, a navy Junior ROTC instructor at the school, Cmdr. William Welp, asked a local organization to do a presentation and offer testing to cadets in his class. The organization was the National School of Technology, a training institution for medical personnel with a campus in Kendall. The NST is not registered with the county health department to conduct testing, but NST brought along Care Resource, a well-established agency that is. Ronny Barnett, who runs the youth-health intervention project for Care Resource, says the JROTC kids wanted the service and that their parents "signed consent forms and everything."

The hitch occurred when the room NST and Care Resource planned to use wasn't available, so the presentation was moved to the Braddock gymnasium. Barnett was asked to bring literature for up to a thousand students. "There were gym classes going on and some of the teachers requested we include their classes," Barnett recalls. "I was concerned and let [NST organizers] know: 'Hey, we have a lot of other kids involved here.'"

But NST was not concerned about that. And neither, apparently, was the school, which failed to inform the school district's HIV/AIDS Education Program. Normally all campus presentations are supposed to be scheduled through this office in order to assure that correct procedures are followed in discussing a sensitive subject. "This office should be notified," confirms White, adding that after New Times informed the district of the testing at Braddock, she spoke with Care Resource and the school's principal so it doesn't happen again.

Several hundred students attended the presentation, which lasted about 45 minutes and was conducted by both Care Resource and NST. Students were then told that a mobile testing unit was outside if they wished to be tested for HIV. More than one hundred were tested. Care Resource provided counseling to students while student nurses from NST conducted the actual tests. Most students had their blood drawn, while some opted for the less invasive saliva method of testing. "NST did the blood-drawing," Barnett says. "That's why they organized this."

Care Resource then sent the tests to a lab and returned to Braddock with the results. Those who wanted their results were instructed to come to the front office. The tests were anonymous; students were identified only by a number. Barnett claims that a majority of students picked up their results, but happily, no one tested positive.

Barnett's recollection matches that of several Braddock students found hanging out at the school's baseball fields last week. None wanted to be quoted, but the general consensus was that an announcement was made -- anyone who wanted to go to the presentation or be tested could get out of regular class to do it. Brandy describes a slightly different experience. She says the students in her personal-fitness class were told that instead of regular class, they would be going to the gym. She got the impression it was not voluntary. "It was part of class time," she says. "Nobody signed a paper or anything. People were saying, 'What is it for?'"

Few would object to educating students about one of the most destructive diseases of our era, and Florida law does allow children to be tested without parental consent. But testing doesn't normally occur in schools because generally they are not qualified to deal with the potential aftermath of a student receiving a positive result. "You really need to ensure that the adolescent has the emotional and intellectual capacity to understand the pros and cons of taking the test," explains Ketty Ledan, director of the Miami-Dade County Health Department's early intervention program.

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