11/24/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

HIV Scare at St. Louis High School

The news is staggering: As many as 50 teenagers at Normandy High School in St. Louis, Missouri, may have been exposed to HIV. The school, which has a student body of 1,300, set up a testing center in the gym for its students; after consulting with a representative from the St. Louis County Health Department, the girls and boys are then tested with a mouth swab. The kicker? Students only have to get tested if they want to. "It's entirely up to the student," said Normandy School District spokesman Doug Hochstedler in an Associated Press article. "There's a lot of stigma associated with this."

When it comes to a child's health, stigma shouldn't matter. All fifty of those potentially infected students must be tested, and the same goes for the entire student body. Furthermore, Normandy High School officials should have come out strongly, advocating openness, pushing sex education, and acknowledging the problems and pressures of teenage life. Instead, the circumstances surrounding the HIV scare are murky at best.

No one is revealing who was infected first, how it happened, or how the infection spread -- if it spread at all. It's not hard to understand why a community would want to handle the situation as privately as possible, especially when it involves minors. But this air of secrecy only contributes to the towering elephant in the room. What I find so interesting is that the AP article, which has been picked up by countless news outlets, mentions sex only once, citing the causes of the potential outbreak as including "sexual activity, intravenous drug use, piercings and tattoos." The rest of the news story is cloaked in vague statements about how the high school is consulting AIDS foundations, managing the fallout, and educating students. Oh, and don't forget about this trivializing gem that appears towards the beginning: A Normandy High School sophomore girl "cried so hard" because her boyfriend from a neighboring town broke up with her -- after she purchased tickets to homecoming.

The news about Normandy High School, though shocking, comes during a year that witnessed the pregnancies of Bristol Palin, Jamie Lynn Spears, and 18 teenagers in Gloucester, Massachusetts, all of which shows that no teen -- not the daughter of a politician, a celebrity, nor your next door neighbor -- is immune to the repercussions of sexual desire or sexual pressure. I can't help but wonder about George Bush's presidency, which marked the ascendancy of the religious right and the abstinence wars, as well as their impact on a lack of serious sex education. After all, teenagers today are coming of age in a culture that is increasingly saturated by sex. Case in point: One out of four teenage girls aged 14 to 19 has at least one of the most common STDs.

This news story is rife with holes. As Normandy sophomore Tevin Baldwin said, "Nobody knows what's going on," and the coverage hasn't provided any answers either.

Let me fill in some blanks. The AP article states the following:

The St. Louis County Health Department said last week that a positive HIV test raised concern that students at Normandy might have been exposed. The department is not saying whether the infected person was a student or connected with the school, only that the person indicated as many as 50 students may have been exposed.

What does this suggest? Common sense tells us that either the person with the positive HIV test had an extremely high number of sexual partners, or the teenagers of Normandy High School are more sexually active than anyone realized or chose to admit. (The truth probably lies somewhere in between.) Of course, IV drug use may be another cause, but regardless, the message flashes loud and clear, in neon lights: Teenagers today face increasing social pressures, and more needs to be done to help them avoid the potentially disastrous consequences.

According to recent findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly half of high school students in 2007 had ever had sexual intercourse, and 15% of high schoolers had ever had four or more sex partners. That same year, over one-third of sexually active high school students did not use a condom during their last sexual intercourse. Whether or not parents, educators, and community leaders want to admit it, teenagers are having sex, and if they're not, they are certainly intrigued by it. Compounding this curiosity is the fact that access to sex has become almost instantaneous. Try looking up "pornography" on Google Images, or watching an episode of Gossip Girl, or sitting through Dr. Drew's half-hour MTV reality show Sex...With Mom and Dad (which is just as painful as it sounds).

In 1995, the film Kids shocked audiences with its intense portrayal of an inner-city youth who hooks up, sleeps with virgins, and spreads HIV. Nearly ten years later, Thirteen followed the tumultuous life of a 13-year-old girl as she experiments with sex, drugs, and crime. Movie characters have always brought us inside worst-case teenage scenarios with startling detail, but today, real teens have taken their place. As the mother of a Normandy freshman told Fox News, the HIV scare is "definitely a smack in the face to let us know we need to be more up on what our kids are getting into." The Normandy High School moment offers a critical teachable moment, if only we are willing to listen.