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Archbishop Ryan High pulls plug on STD film

WITH THE lights turned low in the lecture room at Archbishop Ryan Catholic High School, a film began with images of local radio DJs telling students to "respect yourself" and "protect yourself" from sexually transmitted diseases.

WITH THE lights turned low in the lecture room at Archbishop Ryan Catholic High School, a film began with images of local radio DJs telling students to "respect yourself" and "protect yourself" from sexually transmitted diseases.

The DJs - Golden Girl, from Power 99FM, and Colby Cole from 100.3FM The Beat - began by saying that abstinence was one way to avoid sexual diseases.

But they also warned any students who are sexually active to use protection and get tested for diseases.

The 30 or so students in one of the workshops on sexually transmitted diseases - or STDs - presented last week sat quietly and attentively as the film continued to roll.

It then showed flickering scenes of teenagers in darkened night clubs engaged in the shocking kind of "dirty dancing" styles that have prompted some high schools to ban organized school dances because the students' "dance moves" have become so graphic.

The candid program seemed unusual for a Catholic high school, which invited a public health nurse in to educate students about STD's, but later objected to the content of the material she shared, saying it went against the church's teachings.

Dana Nottingham, the public health nurse who led the workshop, said she was "really surprised" when she heard that Archbishop Ryan wanted her to discuss STDs with students.

"I was told to bring all the information I usually bring [to school events], 'just don't bring condoms,' " Nottingham said.

Her workshop was one of four presented at the school last Tuesday as part of Archbishop Ryan's first annual Health Fair to focus on careers in health.

But before the week was over, top administrators at Archbishop Ryan reviewed the film - presented by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health as a way to start off the discussion - and decided the film went too far.

The archdiocese now says the film gives students a message that contradicts the teachings of the Catholic Church.

"There is a statement in the video that if you are going to be sexually active, you should use protection, and that is contrary to what we are teaching our young people," Donna Farrell, spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said Friday.

"Abstinence and only abstinence is the only option," for Archbishop Ryan students, said Michael J. McArdle, the president of Archbishop Ryan.

With 2,069 students in 9th through 12th grades, Archbishop Ryan, on Academy Road near Chalfont Drive in the Northeast, is the largest high school in the archdiocese.

Now, all 50 students who attended the three STD workshop sessions will meet with school officials who will "explain and reaffirm the church teachings on sexuality," Farrell said.

"We're taking pretty strong steps to go back to the students and say, 'Wait a minute. We want to make sure you really understand where we're coming from, so there's no confusion,' " Farrell said.

"That's our role as a Catholic school to form young people in the faith," she added.

Farrell said officials in the Office of Education at the archdiocese had not seen the film before or after it was screened.

But some Archbishop Ryan administrators who reviewed the film, after questions were raised by the Daily News, said "they were disturbed by some of the language," Farrell said.

The health workshop on STDS had not been a simple leap of faith for health fair organizers.

The purpose of the fair, which took place last Tuesday in the girls' gym, was to help students learn about health careers.

During each student's science class, the high schoolers rotated through the gym to visit tables set up by nearly 30 organizations, from universities to hospitals to the SPCA.

Biology teacher Jerry Donahue had asked student members of the school's Health Careers Club what health issues their fellow students wanted to learn more about, said Ed Lawrence, a teacher at the school who handles communications.

The students said they were concerned about STDs, eating disorders, depression and skin cancer - because so many young people go to tanning salons, Lawrence said.

"These things really are issues that are impacting our youth and we would be remiss to not acknowledge the facts," said Lawrence, who teaches morality and social justice.

"There are issues out there that we want our kids to be informed about."

Dave Bontempo, a member of the Archbishop Ryan Alumni Board, whose daughter attends Archbishop Wood High School in Bucks County, said he thought it made sense for Ryan to present the STD workshop.

"I think it's excellent that

they're making the kids aware of it," Bontempo said. "It's a scary topic, and I think they need to know about it."

After the workshop, with the film's discussions of using protection and the sexually provocative dancing, both Donahue and Lawrence said that Archbishop Ryan stresses abstinence as the policy and teaching of the school and the Catholic Church.

Dr. Lenora Asbel, medical director of STD programs for the Health Department, said the film was approved by the Philadelphia School District and has been presented in the city's public schools for the past year.

"We didn't stage the dancing," Asbel said. "We didn't make that up. It's frightening to us, but this is what is happening in the real world," Asbel said.

She said the filmmaker had visited "all-ages" nightclubs where the patrons are usually under 18, and videotaped the dancing there.

"We want to stress that there's an epidemic of chlamydia among adolescents in Philadelphia right now," Asbel added, "and if there's an opportunity for teens to be screened, it's our job and obligation to do as much as we can to get the information out there so that they are aware that they are at risk."

Asbel noted that chlamydia, which often has no symptoms, is the number one "identifiable cause" of infertility. It can lead to infertility in men and women.

The film said that one in 12 young women between the ages of 15 and 19 in Philadelphia has been exposed to chlamydia.

"The message was blunt," Nottingham said some of the Ryan teachers told her after watching the film.

"But it was something they said the students needed to hear."

Nottingham, a registered nurse, works as an STD nurse specialist at the city's Health Center No.1, at Broad and Lombard streets.

While the film focused on chlamydia and gonorrhea, Nottingham also discussed HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B, genital warts, herpes, syphilis and trichomoniasis, or "trich."

When the film ended, students at the first workshop immediately asked a number of questions.

Among them were: whether a pregnant woman could pass an STD along to her child; whether teens could catch an STD if neither partner had ever had sex before and whether a teen should rely simply on a potential partner's word that he or she does not have an STD.

A senior male student said the workshop was worthwhile.

"You could tell by the questions they were asking that this is something on a lot of kids' minds," he said.

Another boy, a junior, said "it was very beneficial . . . It can help you take care of yourself." *