One of the often-repeated comments made by the characters in my novel, The Sex Ed Chronicles, is that in the absence of sex education, children learn about sex from their friends. However, the novel was set in 1980, before New Jersey high schools began involving students in peer counselling.
On Valentine’s Day 2008, I read about a mini-controversy related to peer counseling on a New Jersey radio news website. The news coverage came from a New Jersey high school: Clearview Regional High School in Harrison Township, in the southern part of the state. There, parents take issue with peer counselors, high school juniors and seniors, who advise freshmen on a variety of topics related to sex education. The counseling model comes from a program called Teen Pep. Designed by the Princeton Leadership Training Center (not affiliated with Princeton University), Teen Pep has been implemented in more than 50 Garden State high schools over the past eight years. Therefore, Teen Pep is not a new program, and school districts have had time to investigate its merits; only now, a school has made news.
Teen Pep trains not only students, but also faculty advisors, to work one on one, but also as a team in various advisory situations. Schools that contract with Teen Pep work with the Princeton Center for a minimum of two years and there are supervision field visits by qualified professionals to help ensure the program runs smoothly. A school that participates in Teen Pep makes a considerable intellectual investment, as well as a financial investment, to make it work. Part of this investment is to explain this program to parents.
Which brings me to lesson number one: if you’re not ready to take these investments seriously, don’t do them.
As I read about the incident at Clearview High, it became clear to me that the fault lies not with the program, but with the school administration. It would have been easier for them to consult parents and clergy up front, as they are supposed to. I realize teachers have opposed this, they did in the 1980s as well, but sex education is an issue parents and clergy believe they have important opinions and insights on.
I found it interesting to read that an advisory council would be formed after parents objected to individual aspects of the program. That should have been in place from day one.
Which brings me to lesson number two: After consulting with parents, decide which topics students are qualified to discuss with their peers.
The objections from parents at Clearview stemmed from the idea that “kids were teaching kids how to have sex. But there had to be clear differences between the topics that teen peer counselors could teach and those that needed to be covered.” by a qualified sex ed teacher. but they weren’t in the press. Parents deserved to know, if they asked before school started. I realize abstinence organizations also use youth speakers; their programs should be subject to the same parental review as the peer counseling program.
Then I come to lesson number three: make sure you have qualified teachers.
The federal No Child Left Behind law emphasizes the need for qualified teachers, which means that a teacher must be certified in the subject matter they teach. That applies as much to sex education as to any other topic. In the Clearview High example, the program leader was an English teacher. When I came to family life education, I learned that sex education instructors probably came from health education, home economics, or social studies, as well as nursing. I would also assume that the counselors could become qualified sex educators; handle personal student affairs as part of their job description.
It seems that Teen Pep is working in most schools; only one school is in the news complaining, but those involved in this program should consider offering an alternative: use counseling and education degree candidates to advise students.
This wouldn’t be peer counseling, but it would appease parents who worry about kids teaching kids about sex. It would also help provide professional development for sex educators.