While teaching a health workshop at Rickover Naval Academy (a Chicago Public School) one of the students asked me “what does sex stand for and where was it first used?” Other questions and comments that other volunteers and I have received while teaching these workshops include, “I heard Nyquil is a form of birth control because it puts your sperm to sleep.” and “What is a period?” I was shocked to receive these questions and comments from 15-year old high school freshmen. How have our health education systems and infrastructure failed us so miserably that high school students don’t know what a period is by the end of ninth grade?
At the same time and in the same classrooms, I received the following questions and comments, “how can you stop someone from raping you?”, “I want to learn when and how to ask for help.”, “Are there male contraceptives?”, “How do I have a healthy relationship?”, and “Will having sex impact the feelings of family and friends in a positive or negative way?” The variety of these questions clearly shows the different headspaces that each of these students are in. Some students still don’t understand what menstruation is while others understand the physical aspects of reproduction and sex and want to learn about the emotional side. Some students are scared to talk about it, some are excited, and others are shy. Some students have never kissed anyone while others have had various types of sex with multiple partners.
While CPS mandates that high schoolers get 675 minutes of sex education each year they often don’t have the manpower or resources to ensure that this education is effective or even to check if the 675 minutes are met at all. Teachers are often overloaded already and the one or two sex educators or health instructors that schools may have on staff often don’t have the time to teach comprehensive curricula to the hundreds of students in each grade. This is where Peer Health Exchange (PHE) comes in. PHE is a national organization based out of several larger cities across the US with the mission to empower young people with the knowledge, skills, and resources to make healthy decisions. To carry out this mission, PHE trains college students to teach health workshops to ninth graders to fill in the existing gap in health education in these schools. At Northwestern, 85 student volunteers teach a series of 14 workshops per year in six public high schools in Chicago. Workshops cover everything from alcohol use to mental health to healthy relationships. Using a near-peer model (university students are only a few years older than the high schoolers we work with) often makes it easier for students to relate with their teachers, particularly around health issues.
But this isn’t enough. This summer, the Chicago Tribune uncovered massive problems of sexual abuse and assault in CPS. As a result, there was a system-wide overhaul, finding that multiple teachers were accepted into CPS despite having histories of child abuse. CPS students shouldn’t face prejudice and abuse regarding their sexual orientation and gender from other students, staff, and faculty members. Instead, school should be a safe space for students where their basic needs and rights are served so that they can learn without fearing for their safety. At a minimum, this should mean students being able to walk around without fear that their teachers may take advantage of them and that their questions about their health will be answered appropriately and with scientifically-correct information.
In Peer Health Exchange, we are trying to do our part to address the education piece of this puzzle. We are constantly adapting our curricula and our teaching methods to make sure we are being as inclusive as possible in the classroom. This means acknowledging and teaching about health that affects all types of people, people with different ability statuses, races, gender, religions, etc. This year’s curriculum explicitly includes images and stories of people of color and people with disabilities in an attempt to follow health education best practices and as a result of the feedback we have heard from students. As we think more critically about our role in the classroom and how it affects the students we work with, CPS must continue to do the same. CPS students deserve a comprehensive health education and a supportive school environment. Hopefully the steps being taken by PHE and now CPS are just the beginning of what will be an environment that students can feel safe and thrive in.