One of the oft-repeated comments by 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 based in 1980, before New Jersey high schools started to involve students in peer counseling.
On Valentines Day 2008, I read about a mini-controversy involving peer counseling on a New Jersey radio news Web site. The news coverage came out of one New Jersey high school: Clearview Regional High School in Harrison Township in the southern part of the state. There, parents object to peer counselors, high school juniors and seniors, counseling freshmen on a variety of topics related to sex education. The counseling model comes from a program called Teen Pep. Designed by the Princeton Center for Leadership Training (not affiliated with Princeton University), Teen Pep has been implemented in over 50 Garden State high schools for the past eight years. Therefore, Teen Pep is not a new program and school districts have had time to investigate its merits-only now, one school has made the news.
Teen Pep trains not only students, but also faculty advisors, to work one-to-one, but also as a team in various counseling situations. Schools contracting for Teen Pep work with the Princeton Center for a minimum of two years and there are supervisory field visits by qualified professionals to help ensure the program is running smoothly. A school that engages 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 takes me to lesson number one: if you are not ready to take these investments seriously, don't make them.
As I read about the incident at Clearview High, it became clear to me that the fault is not with the program, but with the school administration. It would have been easier for them to consult parents and clergy from the get-go, as they are supposed to do. I realize that teachers have objected to this-they did back in 1980 as well-but sex education is a subject where parents and clergy believe they have important opinions and knowledge.
I found it interesting to read that an advisory board would be formed after parents objected to individual aspects of the program. That should have been in place from day one.
Which takes me to lesson number two: after consulting parents, decide which topics students are qualified to discuss with peers.
Parental objections at Clearview stemmed from the idea that "kids were teaching kids to have sex. But there had to be clear differences between the topics teen peer counselors were allowed to teach, and those that had to be covered by a qualified sex education teacher-but they didn't make it in the press. Parents deserved to know, if they asked before school started. I realize that pro-abstinence organizations also use young speakers; their programs should be subject to the same parental review as the peer-counseling program.
Then I get to lesson number three: make sure you have qualified teachers.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act emphasizes a need for qualified teachers, meaning that a teacher should be certified in the subject they teach. That applies as much to sex education as any other subject. In the example of Clearview High, the program leader was an English teacher. When I reached family life education, I learned that sex education instructors were most likely to come from health education, home economics or social studies as well as nursing. I would also assume that guidance counselors could become qualified sex educators; they handle personal student issues as part of their job description.
It appears Teen Pep is working in most schools; only one school is in the news complaining, but those involved with this program should consider offering an alternative: to use degree candidates in counseling and education to counsel students.
This would not 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.
Stuart Nachbar operates EducatedQuest.com, a blog on education politics, policy and technology. He has been involved with education politics and economic development as an urban planner, government affairs manager, software executive, and now as a writer. His first novel, The Sex Ed Chronicles, about sex education and school politics in 1980 New Jersey, earned a coveted "Publishers Choice" selection from iUniverse.