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H.I.V. Scare Unnerves a St. Louis High School

By Malcolm Gay
November 9, 2008
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ST. LOUIS — Walking the halls of Normandy High School between classes, Mya McLemore, a senior, pays close attention these days to the faces of her fellow students. She keeps an eye out for those who avert their gaze, whose lips quiver or who allow a telltale tear to roll down their cheeks.

“I’ve been observing people, trying to see who’s acting different,” said Mya, 16. “Of course, you can’t tell by the way someone looks, but when you walk around and speak to people, you normally wouldn’t think that the person you’re talking to may have H.I.V.”

Life, however, has been far from normal for students at this struggling high school in suburban St. Louis since they learned last month that as many as 50 of their classmates may have been exposed to H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS.

The news went out in a letter Normandy High officials sent home to parents and guardians on Oct. 13. The letter stated simply that while investigating an H.I.V. case, epidemiologists with the St. Louis County Department of Health had learned that there was reason to believe that the virus might have been transmitted “among some Normandy Senior High School students.”

Health department investigators normally pursue such leads quietly and confidentially. But the superintendent of the Normandy School District, Stanton Lawrence, said the potential scope of the exposure prompted his district to inform all of the school’s roughly 1,300 students, in grades 9 through 12, of the investigation, and of the fact that all students would be offered free, confidential H.I.V. testing. Ninety-seven percent of the students chose to be tested. Results are expected this week.

“We weren’t trying to create mass hysteria and panic,” said Mr. Lawrence, who became superintendent in July. “We didn’t want to initiate an environment of fear.”

“We didn’t have a playbook,” he added.

H.I.V. can be transmitted by unprotected sex with someone who has the disease, sharing needles or syringes with someone who is infected, or from an infected mother to a child either during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding, health experts say.

Other than ruling out tattoos, health department officials have not specified how the virus may have been transmitted in this case, and though officials confirm that one person has tested positive for H.I.V., they have not disclosed whether that person is a student.

“We’re very limited in what we can release,” said a spokesman for the county health department, Craig LeFebvre. “We don’t feel like we can release anything that would indicate who it was. We don’t want witch hunts going on.”

But despite efforts to avoid the spread of misinformation, rumors flew through the halls of Normandy High, as students awaited their test results and tried to guess how it was that this deadly virus intruded on their high school years.

“It’s the only thing we talk about,” said Jamar McKinney, a junior. “Who could have H.I.V., who started it, how many people may have it. We always agree on who we think has it.”

Mr. McKinney, 17, said the episode had frayed his feelings for other students.

“I don’t trust nobody until I see the results,” he said, adding that he plans to display his negative test results on a T-shirt. “Nobody wants to walk around and say they’ve got H.I.V. because of how they’re going to be treated. Everybody’s just going to think they’re a walking disease.”

As the news spread, officials from a rival school called Normandy to say they were being bombarded by parents wondering if it was safe to play a scheduled football game. Normandy’s principal, Carl Hudson, said he had assured them that it was. Normandy won, advancing to the district championship with a 9-0 record.

But that was little consolation for Stephen Perkins, 16, a Normandy junior who said that whenever he meets girls at the mall, “the first thing they ask is, ‘What school do you go to?’ ”

“After I say Normandy,” Mr. Perkins continued, he was told, “ ‘The H.I.V. School? AIDS High?’ Normandy’s got a bad name.”

Students and teachers also complain that the school — whose student population is 99 percent black and which is in danger of a state takeover if student performance does not improve within three years — has been further stigmatized by inaccurate and sensational news coverage, which they say portrays the potential exposure as an outbreak.

“A lot of students felt like they were ambushed, that we were being watched and that the media blew the situation way out of proportion,” said Pamela Hughes-Watson, a science teacher. “The kids are really upset about that.”

Mr. Lawrence, the schools superintendent, said school officials knew they were risking a lot of negative attention when they decided to send the letters.

“Anytime you send 1,300 letters to parents, you can expect there’s going to be a call to the media,” he said. “There’s been some shameless sensationalism that’s gone with this story, but given the choice between spurious headlines and meeting these kids’ needs, I’m going to try to the meet these kids’ needs.”

As the glare of publicity fades and students anxiously await their test results, many are grappling with the lessons they have learned and the impact the episode may have on the rest of their high school years, and perhaps the rest of their lives.

“I’m not going to just hop into any relationship,” Mr. McKinney said. “I’m going to talk it out first with the person, and see what they sound like. And if it sounds good, ask if there’s any way I can see their results.”

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