Putting PEP into sex education?

Why do students dread sex ed, you ask? Just think of the sex ed scenes from Juno and Mean Girls—of course the idea of a health teacher putting a condom on a banana or offering his students “rubbers” makes us cringe.  But at PHS, the Teen Prevention Education Program, which has been in place since 2004, replaces the traditional model of school nurses teaching students sex ed with a program in which selected juniors educate all freshmen and sophomores in a series of workshops.

Teen PEP was implemented in 1995 by members from the Center for Supportive Schools, HiTOPS, Inc., and the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services. The program now exists in high schools throughout New Jersey and North Carolina.

“[Teen PEP] is trying to educate young teens on the effects and consequences of sexual involvement, and I feel like we do a very good job with that,” said Ralph Roberts ’15, a current Teen PEP student leader.

Physical education teacher and Teen PEP advisor Sheryl Severance said the program covers, “abstinence, postponing sexual involvement, understanding those feelings that you’re starting to notice … [and] understanding that you have a choice,” as well as topics including sexually transmitted infections, HIV/AIDS, date rape, alcohol, and homophobia reduction.

“Just that the program exists is pretty good in and of itself because … even if we or some people don’t want to listen, some of the stuff is still going to sink through,” Helen Liu ’16 said.

Although Teen PEP is aimed mostly at freshmen, there was a workshop presented to all sophomores earlier this year on homophobia reduction.

The PHS Teen PEP program follows the Teen PEP curriculum implemented statewide and in North Carolina and includes scripts for each workshop.

“[Having a script is] not limiting because Teen PEP allows us to expand on it, but it’s so well-written and it’s so in detail that we often don’t go too far from the script,” Severance said.

“We have an objective that we need to fulfill, so this mandated script helps us to do that,” Roberts said. “[But] sometimes, we can’t let our creativity show to the fullest.”

Jasper Lee ’17 was uninspired by the script, especially during the skits. “I was just looking at my friends’ faces. [Their reaction] was initially disgust, and then they laughed as there was humor, but it wasn’t really provocative,” Lee said.

Severance said Teen PEP tries to keep the atmosphere light, and that she works with the Teen PEP leaders to ensure a welcoming atmosphere for the students. “[The freshmen and sophomores] have no idea what they’re getting themselves into, and that’s why we try to make it a fun environment when they come in. We do the dancing and the music and try to draw them in more,” she said.

Rising junior applicants to the program submit a form to Severance and fellow physical education teacher Jason Carter. The application includes, “a little bit of information about you, why you belong in Teen PEP, and what you can bring to Teen PEP,” said Roberts.

Selected prospective leaders are divided alphabetically into two groups for round one of tryouts, and those who make it through participate in a second tryout. Roberts said some of these applicants meet with Carter and Severance for an individual interview.

Severance said that first and foremost she and Carter are looking for diversity. “We need someone every freshman can relate to,” she said, “The musician, the shy … The cheerleader, the studious.” But other than diversity, Severance said, “I’m looking for a person who’s energetic, a person who is passionate about this, a person who would be dedicated.”

The juniors chosen as leaders take Teen PEP as one of their classes. Severance said the students learn about the issues covered by the curriculum as well as leadership and communication skill required for the workshops.

However, Liu felt the class might not have the desired impact. “I think some of them are doing it because Teen PEP looks good for them, it’s a leadership opportunity for them, and I think some of them don’t want to spend all that time and think further,” Liu said. Teen PEP is an activity that could be listed on college applications during senior year.

Liu said freshmen and sophomores do not take Teen PEP as seriously as they should, and felt that this impacts the success of the program. “It’s really hard to get people to be more open about sex and sex ed,” she said.