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The City Journals

Just the facts—trained peer educators discuss sex education with students

Dec 16, 2021 11:02AM ● By Bill Hardesty

Planned Parenthood Teen Councils serve as peer educators on sex education. (Photo from Unsplash)

By Bill Hardesty | [email protected]

“My classmates recommended me, and I wanted to be part of a group that helps the community,” Olivia, 16, from Park City High School, said.

“People think of it as such a taboo subject, but we are only allowed to talk about sex and sex education in factual ways,” Inanna, 17, from City Academy, said.

“There is a lot of material that needs to be avoided or dealt with skillfully in order not to bring up anything that is conflicting with different values or beliefs,” Gabriella, 16, from Rowland Hall, said.

Olivia, Inanna, and Gabriella are members of a Planned Parenthood Youth Council for 2021-22. There are three youth councils—Salt Lake County West, Salt Lake County East, and Wasatch/Summit County. In addition, Planned Parenthood is working with a rural expansion partner to create another youth council in the Vernal area.

The Salt Lake County West Teen Council meets at the Planned Parenthood West Valley Health Center (1906 W. 3600 South).

The central role for the youth council members is to be peer educators for sex education in grades seven to 12. While they can do one-on-one discussions, they are mainly trained to do classroom presentations.

They serve for one year, starting in July with a daylong retreat (pre-pandemic, a two-day retreat). They also meet every week for two and a half hours. This means at the end of their service; they have received about 100 hours of training. Youth council members are paid a stipend for their time.

“We want the teens to know their time is valuable as is the material,” Annabel Sheinberg, vice-president of External Affairs Planned Parenthood, said.

Subject matter

Peer educators become knowledgeable on such subjects as: delaying sex; healthy relationships; family communications; HIV/AIDS; STDs or STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infections, which is the most current term); contraceptives; and sexual identity.

The teen councils provide accurate information to their peers.

“We bring up the subjects in a more factual way. Not as something we want to put our opinion on people,” Olivia said.

“It is important that peer educators act as a resource for their peers. Answer their questions in an informal conversational setting,” Sheinberg added. “We’re not there to judge but to listen, provide information and support.”

“We do a lot of training on how to answer value questions and to stay entirely neutral. We don’t want to inject or impose our own beliefs,” Gabriella said.

Peer educators are known by their peers and supported by their school’s administration. Planned Parenthood is upfront about what is presented.

Presentations

The concept of peer educators is taking advantage of the power of peers in a teenager’s life. The notion is that teenagers are more likely to listen to a peer than an adult health teacher. The presentations are for grades seventh through 12th.

“I recently taught seventh graders on healthy relationships, and it was very cool to guide them to make their own decisions on what a healthy relationship is for them. It was fun. It was interesting to watch these little people figure it out,” Inanna said.

Teen councils respond to invitations primarily by health education teachers. The school district also approves the program. Parents must sign an opt-in form to allow their child to attend a presentation.

Findings

During the 2016-17 school year, a nationwide study was conducted to see the benefits of the teen councils and being a member of a council. 

In that school year, there were 1,627 formal presentations and 17,584 information educational sessions. Ninety percent of audience members said they learned something new, and 82% learned where to go for sexual health services. 

It was also found that teen council members were more likely to talk with their parents about sex than their peers (85% to 72%). In addition, 27% of teen council members reported having 15 or more conversations with their parents compared to only 10% of peers.

The study also reported, “Teen Council members are more confident than their peers being actively engaged citizens and believe they can make a difference in their community or and in their belief.”

The report shows that teen council members are not more likely to be sexually active than their peers (54% compared to 45%). 

An outreach

The teen council members had various reasons on why they participate. 

“Have an opportunity to have an outreach on other people. Teach them something and leave them with good values,” Olivia said.

“Having an opportunity to make a lasting impact on anyone you interact with. Also, to give them accurate information, which is too often hard to find,” Gabriella said.

“Pushing myself. Learning how to teach hard things. I want to be a teacher so learning how to teach is something I really want to do,” Inanna said. “I have found I really enjoy watching people figure things out and help them to understand better something that is so forbidden or difficult to talk about.”

“Besides teaching and sharing, teen council members spend a day lobbying the legislature during their session,” Sheinberg said.    

Applications are gathered each May and are available online at Planned Parenthood Utah. 

Interviews are held during May and June, with selections by the end of the month. Most teen council members serve one year and can reapply for a second year. Therefore, there are more applications than openings. There are 12-15 members on each council.