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Is Peer Pressuring Your Class To Get HIV Tested Brilliant? Or A Huge Mistake?

Next Friday at San Francisco’s private Urban School, where parents pay $32k a year to keep their kids out of public school, the entire senior class is getting an HIV test. Well the whole thing is, of course, voluntary, as no administrator nor student group can force kids to have their blood tested. The rationale, at first glance, makes sense: high school kids have sex, some more safely than others, and knowing your HIV status is a crucial step in staying healthy (and keeping your sexual partners safe). Except is creating an environment where kids feel peer pressured into getting tested a good idea?

“The goal is to educate on how easy it is to get tested and how important it is,” says Oliver Hamilton (pictured below), the 17-year-old senior who came up with the idea for the group test, who works in the office of an AIDS doctor. And while Hamilton stresses the test — which parents were notified about via letter — isn’t required, he’s very clear about the intent: make it “cool” to get tested, so that if you don’t, you feel left out. “[I]f 70 kids get tested and 10 don’t, people might wonder why those 10 are the ones who are scared. Critical mass is really important,” he tells the Wall Street Journal.

One the one hand, a group test de-stigmatizes the idea that being tested means you’re slutty. On the other hand, Hamilton’s very proposition — that the kids who don’t get tested will be wondered about by peers — isn’t a healthy environment for anyone. Do we really want to give kids another reason to be singled out?

What if one of the reasons students don’t want to get tested is because they already know they’re positive? Or what about students who have never used drugs, had sex, or engaged in other “high risk behavior,” and thus can be certain they are negative? The result of an entire class being tested with a handful of students refusing (for decent reasons) will have the reverse effect on those who don’t participate: they will be branded as weirdos. As outsiders. As — dare I say it — positive. Because otherwise why wouldn’t you get tested?

In the lead-up to the test, Mr. Hamilton and fellow student organizers are holding an information session required for all seniors. A voluntary lunchtime forum open to all students at the school is planned for next week to talk about the testing.

On testing day, Urban seniors will get tested in the gym by adult volunteers during study hall, lunch and other openings in their classes. Dr. Conant will oversee mouth-swab tests, with supplies donated by the maker of the tests, OraSure Technologies Inc. Mr. Hamilton also convinced a nearby Ben & Jerry’s to give free ice cream to all the students who participate.

Administrators at the 45-year-old high school in Haight Ashbury, which costs more than $32,000 each year to attend, were receptive to Mr. Hamilton’s plan when he presented it in the fall. “We understand that one of the best ways to alleviate the stigma that can be attached to testing is to let it become just part of the normal health practice of all teens,” says Charlotte Worsley, Urban’s assistant head for student life.

Students won’t get the results for a few days, and can receive them by phone, mail, or email (why not Twitter or Facebook?!) — an effort to put some distance between the social pressure of getting tested and the social pressure to tell everyone your results. But like the SAT, a test where there’s the same sort of social pressure to take it, very few students escape the inevitable question from classmates: So, how’d you do?

The HIV status of any person, let alone a teenager, is a very private matter. Creating a school environment where it’s expected to share sharing the results of your test might be enough to deter some kids from not getting tested; and those who do, and find out they are positive, may find themselves in a situation where they are lying to friends to escape the social stigma (and the endless questions about your sex life) that’s attached to being poz.

Nowhere in this post do I want to give the idea that I’m discouraging testing. I’m not. I love the idea. Get more young people tested right this minute! And I’m a big fan of any creative campaign that makes getting a HIV test seem “cool,” because “everyone else is doing it.” But I know HIV-positive high schoolers (my best friend is the father to one), and little gets this young man excited about having to discuss his status with anyone else. Making a school project out of something he struggles with every day? Not great fun.

And yet: Shouldn’t we be encouraging young people, in any way possible, to know their status? That’s exactly what this effort is doing. And based on that alone, it should be applauded.

But one thing that seems to be missing from Hamilton’s project is what happens when a student gets a positive test result back. All the negative kids will be waving around their results with pride. Are we going to make it cool for young people to be poz? Likely not. Which means poz kids, in an effort to avoid being bullied or pitied, will lie. Because

    that’s so healthy.