Teen counselors succeed where sex-ed classes fail

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

January 25, 1995|By George Rodrigue | George Rodrigue,Dallas Morning News

ATLANTA — ~TC ATLANTA -- Several times a day, 17-year-old Delvecchio Finley might tell a vulnerable young girl, "If you love me, you'll have sex with me."

But the girl usually replies, "If you love me, why are you pressuring me to do something I don't want to do?" Whereupon her eighth-grade classmates cheer loudly.

Delvecchio joins the celebration. He's just acting out a skit, part of what several experts call the nation's most successful program for preventing teen pregnancy.

It's called "Postponing Sexual Involvement," and many analysts say it is the nation's most effective teen-pregnancy program. One study says graduates are five to 15 times less likely than their peers to start having sex in the year after the course.

That has caught the eye of official Washington, where unwed teen-age motherhood has taken center stage in the debate over welfare reform.

Unwed births account for 30 percent of all American children; almost half the children born to poor, uneducated whites; and 68 percent of black children.

That is expensive for the children and for society. Eighty percent of the children born to unwed high-school dropouts grow up in poverty. Most welfare funds are spent on families started by teen mothers, and nearly half of all never-married mothers reported receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children in 1993.

The program's director, Dr. Marion Howard, said she began by noting the failure of one traditional remedy, the dissemination of birth-control information in sex-education courses.

Youngsters might learn plenty about contraception, "but they aren't any more likely to use it," said Dr. Howard, an organizational specialist with Emory University's gynecology school.

Then she learned of an anti-smoking campaign that used older teen-agers as role models.

Younger children were more likely to follow a good example than to obey a lecture, she thought. And anyway, they couldn't possibly imagine anyone her age knowing anything about sex.

Finally, Dr. Howard and her chief collaborator, Marie Mitchell, surveyed teen mothers. Their final question was, in effect, "What would you like to learn more about?"

Overwhelmingly, the young mothers wanted to know how to say no without hurting a boyfriend's feelings or driving him away.

By the early 1980s, the staffs of Emory University and Grady Memorial Hospital had put together a program in which teen-agers helped other teen-agers learn how and why to say no.

The program, which now reaches all Atlanta eighth-graders, begins with the usual discussions of anatomy and contraception. Then come Delvecchio and his fellow teen counselors.

With no realistic plans for college or career, those youngsters do not consider the costs of early parenthood, the teen counselors said. Indeed, some might view the baby as a way to gain love and show maturity.

To expose those fallacies and help children take control over their lives, Dr. Howard and her colleagues devised a five-session program. It focuses on:

* Risks of sexual activity, from AIDS to childbirth.

* Sexual pressures in society, from sex in advertising to sex in movies.

* Peer pressure, including discussion of some of the lines that boys and girls use to pressure each other.

Many teen-agers said the course changed their perspectives on themselves and on others.

"At first, I wondered if I had a right to say no," said teen counselor Tiffany Marsh. "Afterward, I knew that I could and that they should respect my feelings."

Several boys said the lessons helped them understand girls' feelings and respect them. "Nobody has the right to oppress anyone else," said Curtis Ross, 16.

A study of high-risk youths funded by the Ford Foundation found that 44 percent of eighth-grade boys surveyed had already had sex before starting the program, as had 9 percent of the girls. By the time ninth grade ended, 27 percent of the girls who did not participate in the program had begun to have sex, compared with 17 percent of the girls in Dr. Howard's program.

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