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East Harlem Teen Health Project Picks Up Where Sex Ed Leaves Off

Teens at the East Harlem Teen Health Project prepare for a condom relay race as part of their peer-to-peer sex education program. Photo by Kate Cox/Uptown Radio

Teens at the East Harlem Teen Health Project prepare for a condom relay race as part of their peer-to-peer sex education program. Photo by Kate Cox/Uptown Radio

HOST 1: These days, talk of public school education seems to be about standards. But one of the things that’s not standardized: sex education.

HOST 2: More than 80 percent of teens aged 15 to 17 who have sex for the first time have not had any formal sex education. As Kate Cox reports, one East Harlem community health project wants to pick up where sex ed in schools leaves off.


COX: It’s a Tuesday. And it’s condom relay night at the East Harlem Teen Health Project. Alexis Alvarez, one of the adult counselors, lays out the ground rules for ten peer trainers and their friends.

ALVAREZ: “You gotta grab a condom, check the expiration date, put your hands in, put the condom on, let’s go…it’s a relay race, let’s go, let’s go.” (00:07)

The teenagers stick their hands inside two holes on either side of a cardboard box. They have to put a condom on a wooden penis — quickly.

AMBI: “…go, go go, put it on…” (laughter, clapping)

If they do it correctly, the next person lines up. But it’s hard to put a condom on without looking.

ALVAREZ: “Yeah, you have to do it in the box, though, you can’t look at it. That’s the whole trick. It’s dark, it’s nighttime.” (00:05 )

The relay is a moment of levity in a subject that’s usually filled with embarrassment. The goal of this evening is to make condoms and putting them on no big deal. But it’s one thing to get the condom on quickly. it’s another thing to get it on correctly. Alvarez inspects one of the teens’ work.

ALVAREZ: “…ummm, that’s inside out, no…”(00:02)

The New York City Department of Health funds the East Harlem Teen Health Project, which educates more than 270 teens a year. Programs like this pick up where sex ed in New York City Schools leave off — with a 2011 mandate that students receive a semester of sex education in middle and high school. But sex ed in city schools is part of health class, which puts a narrow focus on avoiding risk. Condom demonstrations like the relay race aren’t allowed in classrooms.  Alvarez says that just doesn’t go far enough. Comprehensive sex ed should cover…

ALVAREZ: “…HIV prevention, AIDS awareness, AIDS prevention, STI prevention, teen pregnancy prevention, negotiation skills, condom demonstrations, abstinence, of course…”  (00:15 )

That’s quite a wish list.

ALVAREZ: “Did I say STIs already…?” (00:03)

There’s no Common Core equivalent for sex ed. Three years ago a group of health advocates proposed National Sexuality Education Standards. Like academic standards, these define what kids should know when; not how they should they should learn it. Things like, by the end of second grade they should know proper body part names. By the end of fifth grade they should know about puberty. And by the time they leave middle school, students should know what rape is and how contraceptives work.

The hitch is that like many curricula issues, adoption of these recommended standards comes down to state by state legislation. So far, Colorado is the only state that attempted to adopt the national standards. And it failed. Under the George W. Bush administration, abstinence-only education took the largest slice of the federal funding pie. And that funding was renewed under the Affordable Care Act, in spite of research that says abstinence education does little to delay the onset of sexual activity. Today, 22 states require public schools to teach sexual education. It’s not abstinence-only. But it’s still abstinence-heavy.

SOT: EHTHP // fade under //

Back in East Harlem, thirteen year-old Arianna Castillo leads the demonstration that comes after the relay.

CASTILLO: “…then you gotta push the condom to the side so it doesn’t rip when you open it. And then you gotta show it so there’s like a little hat pointing up, then you gotta hold the base and you gotta roll it down.” (00:15)

In spite of her confidence, one fact is inescapable. Castillo is young, newly thirteen. And she’s not here alone. Her mother, Isis Ramos-Castillo, is here too. Because when it comes to sex ed, Isis says the first teacher should be…

CASTILLO: “Parents.” (00:01)

But she has three daughters, ages 10, 13 and 15. All three are getting different amounts of sex education in their public schools. Ramos said she needed another resource. So she signed the up for the East Harlem Teen Health Project. And it’s made sex easier to talk about.

CASTILLO: “At first it was a little bit awkward but then it’s like, you gotta move on with the kids, you gotta grow up with them.” (00:07)

In a perfect world, most sexuality educators say parents, schools and pediatricians would work together to educate kids about sex and their sexuality. Michael Carrera at the Children’s Aid Society has developed more than fifty adolescent sexual health programs across the country. He says sex education should start in kindergarten and run through twelfth grade. He sees sex and sexuality as part of a person’s whole being.

CARRERA: “So our policy objective is to continue to run these programs locally and nationally and try to get this idea in the drinking water. That this must be the way that we fully educate young people. It’s at least as important as math.” (00:15)

Abstinence-only sex education is funded under the Affordable Care Act through 2014. But what comes after that? Carrera says we’re at a tipping point and standards are the right next thing.

CARRERA: “But…we’re a very, very long way from that.” (00:03)

SOT: EHTHP // fade under //

Thirteen year-old Arianna Castillo says in school they teach you not to get pregnant but they don’t show you how to use a condom. It’s not curricula she’s interested in so much as learning from people she can talk to.

CASTILLO: “You can act things out, and you know, they’ll show you videos and they’ll be specific about it. And if you have a question they’ll answer it, no matter how awkward it is.” (00:15)

Whether young people get their sex education at home, at school, or as part of the community, advocates of standards agree on one thing: they need to get it. But it may be a long while before we settle on how. Kate Cox, Columbia Radio News.

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