Ten years ago, Jennifer Wyms was a 17-year-old junior at Normandy High School in Wellston, Mo. She was the captain of her school’s hip-hop dance team and enjoyed going to the mall with friends. But when a health scare engulfed her St. Louis community, it cast a shadow on her high school experience.
A letter from school officials sent to parents and guardians in October 2008 relayed the news that epidemiologists with the St. Louis County Department of Health had grounds to believe that HIV may have been transmitted among some students — as many as 50 students at Normandy High School could have been exposed, it said.
“Everybody wanted to know, who had it? Where it came from? Why our school?” Wyms told The Washington Post.
The possible extent of the exposure prompted the superintendent of the Normandy School District, Stanton Lawrence, to launch an investigation and offer free HIV testing to the school’s 1,300 students.
“We weren’t trying to create mass hysteria and panic,” he told the New York Times in 2008. “We didn’t want to initiate an environment of fear.”
But the stigma associated with HIV did create mass hysteria, and the event marked the beginning of a trail of bad publicity the school and the community are still grappling with today.
Normandy, whose students are 96 percent African American, has consistently ranked last in overall academic performance in Missouri, and the high school lost its accreditation in 2013. The following year, Michael Brown, a Normandy graduate, was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., his body left on the street for hours — an event that touched off the Black Lives Matter movement.
The HIV scare was “one of the most memorable things, I think, in my career,” former social studies teacher Kwira Vickers Wright told The Post. “We never knew if it was a girl or boy, and never found out who the student was.”
As the news spread throughout St. Louis County, some parents considered pulling their children out of school, and a rival school initially balked at playing the undefeated Vikings football team.
Wyms said she remembers “being on the softball team and going to play other schools, and it was something they would use against [us]. ‘Oh, well, I heard they got AIDS on the wall,’ they would say.”
“Thinking about it as an adult, you know that’s irrational and not even smart to say,” Wyms said, “but back then it was offensive to us.”
The anxiety was so bad for some students that they made T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase, “I’m Negative."
But not everyone viewed the scandal so negatively. Vickers Wright said she thought it was “admirable” for Normandy to face the situation head on. She recalled a conversation with a health director about the person who tested positive for HIV and named other people who might have been exposed. The HIV-positive person, the health director said, had disclosed the names of students who attended surrounding schools as well. Normandy was the only one to provide public testing.
“In that moment, I was so proud to be a Viking,” Vickers Wright said. “I was so proud of our administration . . . because at that point, you’re putting the students first.
“I can remember talking to my classes about it and being real and sharing personal experiences with them. I let them know I would get tested with them. I remember a lot of healthy conversation coming out of it.”
The state health department transformed Normandy’s gymnasium into a makeshift clinic with curtains around each of six testing stations. Testing was done in blocks for each grade. Wyms said she timed it perfectly so she could miss a class she wanted to skip that day.
She recalled standing in the line for about 20 minutes.
“You could see who went in and who came out. It was almost a [rite of] passage to say I’m negative. If you didn’t see someone getting tested, people looked at them differently,” Wyms said.
Ninety-seven percent of Normandy’s students chose to get tested, according to the New York Times report in 2008.
The experience pushed Wyms to learn more about HIV, though she admits she didn’t realize then “the heaviness of the situation.”
At the time, students in fourth through 12th grades took classes that discussed the consequences of high-risk behaviors, though each school district was responsible for determining the scope of HIV education its students received.
The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education stopped distributing grants in 2006 that funded HIV-education classes at high-risk high schools. According to a supervisor in the department’s HIV/AIDS prevention program, quoted in a 2008 report from the Riverfront Times, the agency made the call to discontinue funds when just three schools applied for 15 available grants.
The human immunodeficiency virus can be transmitted by unprotected sexual contact, sharing needles or syringes with an infected person, blood transfusions and from mother to child during pregnancy, birth or breast-feeding. It has no known cure, but advances in medicine have allowed people with HIV to manage the condition and lead full lives.
Over the past decade, significant progress has been made in HIV testing and prevention. Rapid HIV tests are available for purchase, typically providing results in 30 minutes or less. And in 2012, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first daily medication that can reduce the risk of HIV infection in uninfected individuals.
HIV rates in the United States have also declined in recent years, though transmission rates continue to be high among certain groups. African Americans accounted for 44 percent of new HIV diagnoses in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Even now, in 2018, when HIV appears to be part of our reality, there’s a panic that ensues. There’s not a lot of conversation of what HIV looks like,” Louie Ortiz-Fonseca, the director of LGBTQ Health and Rights at Advocates for Youth, told The Post. “When young people are left to their own devices about HIV, it becomes a breeding ground for stigma.”
Ortiz-Fonseca works with young people of color ages 14 to 24 who are HIV positive. “Stigma mainly shows up in social interactions and online in ways that aren’t necessarily intentional,” he said. “People write on social media things like, ‘Y’all ain’t clean,’ and this language is a form of spreading HIV phobia.”
Despite the panic in fall 2008, there turned out to be no evidence of an HIV epidemic at Normandy High School, and no other people were found to be HIV positive. Wyms and Vickers Wright remember that the clamor lasted about two weeks from the time parents received the letter to when testing was complete.
Since then, Normandy has opened small health clinics on campus where students can receive free physicals, STD testing, contraception and counseling for behavioral and mental health. But talk of the event still comes up from time to time and has become, to a small extent, part of the school’s reputation. In October, during a live taping in St. Louis of the MTV comedy show “Wild ’N Out,” one of the battling comedians made a crack about “Normandy’s STDs.”
“This event definitely cast a shadow on the high school,” Wyms said. “No matter what they tried to do, like putting in a new track or football field, no matter what the school did, that umbrella or dark cloud always hung over Normandy.”