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'We have 12 years of [being] very successful at providing HIV imformation. It seems like they would trust us'

From aliens looking for the causes of HIV to a game show called "The Fluid is Right," the message of the group TeenACT is direct in its focus even if its language is purposely coy.

Because educators apparently quiver at the dreaded word "condom," it is carefully avoided. Instead, the actors inform their audience about HIV/AIDS through mostly light-hearted skits using phrases such as "don't touch the love without the glove" and "always wear your raincoat."

The bottom line, they say plainly, is "it only takes once" for a teen to become part of a growing trend.

It's a message that has been freely heard in Orange County's public schools. But it's having a hard time reaching students in Seminole.

For about two years TeenACT which is co-sponsored by Theater Works and the Centaur AIDS service organization, has performed across Central Florida. Kathleen Aponte, Centaur's outreach education manager, says it tapped a need to find "another way to deliver the message."

Promising research aside,, the Centers for Disease Control reports that AIDS/HIV is still the leading cause of death for Americans between 25 and 44. It is believed that most who die in their 20s and 30s contract the disease as teens.

Aponte says frequently-asked questions from school audiences, such whether you can get infected from a mosquito bite or French kissing, shows that despite a decade of education kids still haven't learned the basics. While teens don't necessarily "tune out adults," Aponte says, they pay closer attention to their peers.

And the 15-member troupe, made up of kids 13 to 19, has been well-received, even performing at a recent conference sponsored by the Florida Department of Health. Aponte says they hope to set up a satellite group in Volusia County, and eventually would like to have small groups at individual schools.

But in Seminole County a restrictive review process has kept the group from reaching its target audience. The school board's recent crackdown on how speakers are scheduled also has drastically cut the number of classroom visits made by Centaur, whose presentations fell from about 25 a semester to maybe three.

"My concern," says Aponte, "is that they think the epidemic is over."

Getting the message out to Seminole public schools is complicated by a review panel established to approve presentations deemed controversial. DeDe Schaffner, coordinator of community involvement for the district, says Centaur and TeenACT are not a special target. Anyone wanting to speak on what she describes as "those kind of topics" must be screened.

"Those kind of topics," she says, might include "anything that relates to AIDS/HIV or abortion" or "anything that might have a religious tendency." Drug education also sometimes falls into that category, she says.

She acknowledges that the school board has gotten more careful about who speaks to its students. "Some of these groups were going into schools without our knowledge," says Schaffner, who sits on the review panel. "The bottom line is what is good for the kids."

But the decision seem to be arbitrary. There is no written policy on what topics the panel must review, or what is inappropriate. That is "decided on a per-case basis," she said.

Anyway, she says, HIV/AIDS is covered in the curriculum.

Seminole's policy essentially bars the improv group, says Aponte, because the review panel demands to see each performer; with a rotating list of volunteer actors and skits that come and go -- plus a review panel that meets infrequently -- Aponte, one of two Centaur representatives approved to speak in Seminole classrooms, says there's been no point in trying to get TeenACT approved.

Joe Joyner, area superintendent for Orange County Public Schools, says his district also has restrictions about such groups. But Orange County makes an effort to work with those whose message matches the curriculum. He says outside speakers can bring to life to what he calls the "tragedy of AIDS."

Indeed, Aponte says the content of the message is approved by Orange County schools, but the troupe itself is not subjected to review. And Joyner says written guidelines allows both side to work together to target the message appropriately.

Aponte she hopes the rules in Seminole County will change so TeenACT can reach those who need the information the most: other kids.

"We have 12 years of [being] very successful at providing HIV information," she says. "It seems like they would trust us by now."

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