Four AIDS seminars for high school students were abruptly canceled this week by two South Bay school districts after officials said they were afraid television cameras would turn the classroom sessions into media events.
"I'm sick over it. In fact, I'm astonished," said Dr. Norman R. Zinner, a Torrance urologist, who said he was giving the seminars without charge to help overcome teen-age indifference to the dangers of AIDS--acquired immune deficiency syndrome that can be transmitted sexually, leaving the body vulnerable to a variety of infections that are invariably fatal.
"There needs to be more public exposure," Zinner said, asserting that teen-agers are "most vulnerable" to AIDS because they experiment with drugs and sex. "This disease is not like a cold or the flu, not even herpes. People die and they don't die well."
Zinner gave one seminar Tuesday morning at Shery High School in Torrance, but later that day Torrance school district officials--citing a call from a television station that wanted to cover one of the seminars--canceled the ones scheduled for three other Torrance high schools. A session slated for Wednesday at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach also was canceled by the South Bay Union High School District, which blamed both television and a lack of student interest.
"It was becoming a thing where it appeared there would be more attention paid to the cameras than the presentation itself," said Neil Griffith, curriculum consultant for the Torrance Unified School District. Griffith said two newspapers, including The Times, and television's Channel 9 made requests to cover the seminars. A Times reporter was denied permission to attend the seminar at Shery High School.
Griffith said students are not being denied information on AIDS because that is included in instruction given to 10th-graders on sexually transmitted diseases in which medical doctors participate as guest speakers.
Public Relations Ploy
Diane Clark, special education and health coordinator in the South Bay Union district, said the district objected to efforts by Zinner's public relations representative, Joan Kerr, to get television coverage.
"We are in the midst of a big health fair," Clark said. "We believe this is education, not the sort of thing we want publicized in a great big deal."
Like Griffith, she said Mira Costa students receive AIDS education in the classroom and during noon talks open to all students. "We've had many speakers on the subject, and they have never needed publicity," she said.
For his part, Zinner said he would have preferred not to have television cameras present, but he acknowledged that it was the public relations firm that he retains to do marketing and advertising for his medical group that contacted the news media.
Channel 9 news director Stephanie Brady said the station contacted Mira Costa after receiving press information from Kerr because the seminar was a legitimate news event. "There's all this conversation that this is the age group that most needs to know about AIDS and prevention," she said.
Brady said the station accepted the Mira Costa decision to deny coverage because "they had a real problem about news coverage," adding, "It was not our intention for them to cancel."
Brady said the station did not contact Torrance, and Griffith acknowledged Wednesday that while it is his "understanding" that one of the schools was contacted, "that may have been a confusion" with the Mira Costa situation.
Asked why the district did not just bar the press and allow Zinner to give his seminars as scheduled, Griffith said, "Then it becomes yet another media event. . . . It would be interpreted that there was something we did not want the press to see."
Griffith said he does not believe the district overreacted: "We just don't see having a lot of media in as being a proper instructional setting." Clark, too, said there was no overreaction: "It was more of having something seem to escalate and be larger than what it should be."
Frankness Not a Factor
Zinner, however, said he believes the districts are "making more of it than needs to be made."
Both districts said the fact that Zinner was speaking frankly about AIDS and how to prevent it was not a factor in the cancellations. However, Zinner said it might have been, calling the action a "reflection of the anxiety about the subject."
Harold Klonecky, principal at Torrance High School, said the district's first decision Tuesday morning was to have the seminars without press attendance, and he acknowledged that the subject matter was a factor in that decision. He said the district wanted to see what Zinner presented and how he presented it "without anyone outside viewing it."
He said the main concern was the reaction of parents, who had to sign permission slips for their children to attend. Parental permission is required for all presentations of material of "delicate or controversial nature," Klonecky said.
Decision to Cancel