Empowered high school role models teaching about the consequences of sex and drugs can influence the lives of adolescents.
The PEERS Project, Peers Educating and Encouraging Responsible Sexuality, utilizes high school-age role models, who've chosen to abstain from sexual involvement and drug use, are educating and encouraging their younger peers in middle school to follow their example.
In 1992, Clay County was ranked second in the state for teen pregnancy and birth rates. Since the inception of PEERS three years ago, the ranking dropped to 48 out of 92 counties in 2001. It started with only six peer mentors at Northview High School, reaching 143 students at North Clay Middle School. This year, 22 mentors will reach about 600 middle school students.
It is initiated at this age level because the developmental period is the critical time to begin preparing young people for the negative pressures and examples that will assault their value system. The prevailing message is "You can choose your behavior but not your consequences."
Mentors discuss such topics as media influences, peer pressure, the link between drugs and sex, sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy and parenthood, assertiveness training and what love really is. The curriculum consists of research-based information, games, activities, videos and discussions.
"Date in groups. Remember, safety is in numbers," Melissa Medearis told Vicky Eaton's seventh grade health class recently.
"Or you can make it easier on yourselves by just dating people that feel the same way about sex that you do," Kyle Nees added.
Alexis Pierce and Stacey Nichols conducted a powerful demonstration with the class to show how fast HIV/AIDS can spread. They asked the student who got the AIDS card to stand. Then they asked students who signed that person's card to stand, followed by all students who signed those cards. Eventually, all but seven students in the entire classroom stood up; they were the ones who died from the AIDS virus.
The four high school students took cards out of their pockets.
"We signed these commitment to abstinence cards in our seventh grade health class. We still have them and carry them with us at all times to remind us of our commitment. We hope all of you will sign the commitment cards you will receive and carry them with you as well," Nees said.
Schools that teach their students how to use contraceptives have higher pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease rates than schools that provide a clear and consistent abstinence education intervention. Compared with their non-sexually experienced peers, sexually active adolescents are more than twice as likely to use alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and other drugs, perform poorly in school and have a less positive outlook on future vocational possibilities.
"I tell my students that these things are going to have an effect on your life for the rest of your life. But to have these high school students tell them really makes an impact. The PEERS programs are by far the most important thing we can do for these kids at this age level," Eaton said.
The PEERS Project is funded by a variety of grant sources: Maternal and Child Health Bureau, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Indiana RESPECT (Reduces Early Sex and Pregnancy by Educating Children and Teens) from the Indiana State Department of Health in collaboration with the Cooperative Extension Service of Clay County and Clay Community Schools; and St. Vincent Hospitals and Health Services of Indianapolis.
If you would like to become a PEERS mentor, please contact Sherry Dicer, grant programs facilitator, at 448-9041.