"How do I know if I'm in love? How do I use a condom? What does sex have to do with love? Why can't I talk to my parents about sex?"

These questions, no matter how uncomfortable they may seem, must be answered, according to the students of Pleasantville High School's sexual awareness and education program, Teen PEP.

Under the guidelines of the program - instituted by the Princeton Center for Leadership Training - the school is required to hold "Talk to Me," a family night workshop, said Pleasantville program facilitator Stephen Katzen.

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On a recent Wednesday night, more than 50 students, their parents and the school's staff gathered in the cafeteria to discuss the topic of sex.

"The mission of the group is to teach kids about sexual education, HIV/AIDS, homophobia reduction and to create a dialogue," Katzen said, adding that the Feb. 27 workshop was intended to be an open forum for discussion.

And that night, people were talking.

Teen PEP members prompted parents to think about what specifically they wanted their children to know about sex, and, immediately, parents took their pencils to paper.

Vanessa Monroe, mother of 17-year-old Teen PEP member Julia, said that she maintains an open communication with her daughter. She mentioned that above all, sex should be meaningful.

The night also consisted of skits, put on by the 16 Teen PEP students - all addressing realistic scenarios between children and their parents -breakoff sessions and a panel discussion, giving parents the opportunity to ask any questions they had on the subject matter.

"It opened my eyes as to what they're thinking about, what they're talking about in class and things that she is sharing with her peers," Monroe said, referring to the night's opening skit.

"These are really important lessons," she continued. "It's not math or reading or writing, but they're very important lessons that they'll need to take on to college when their parents aren't there."

Teen PEP is offered to seniors as a five-credit class that meets each day, Katzen said. The program, in its sixth year, was brought to the school by physical education teacher Michelle Stevenson. A selection process, based on questions provided by the state, as well as attendance, grades and discipline determine who meets the requirements for the program.

Students are required to take a two-day retreat in the summer, explained Katzen, where they build teamwork and leadership skills, become familiar with language relating to sex and the human body and get the basics on how to become peer educators.

Senior Lesley Garcia, 17, applied to be a Teen PEP member for that reason.

"I saw how last year's group did a good job with freshman awareness," she said. The target audience for the group is incoming ninth-graders, she explained.

"Our mission is to save at least one out of the group," she said.

Katzen admitted that the subject matter tends to be controversial, but necessary, given the demographic of the school and the surrounding community. Teen PEP is offered at 50 schools throughout New Jersey. Pleasantville offers the only program in Atlantic County, he said.

"Among the Hispanic and African American community, nationally, teen pregnancy and (sexually transmitted infections) are major issues. HIV/AIDS is a major issue," Katzen said.

The event not only included questions, but answers. Teachable moments, such as responding immediately to your child's need to know and sparking conversation when a relevant topic comes up on TV, were demonstrated.

In the open panel discussion, the teens explained that today's generation feels an increased pressure to have sex and that the topic is more easily discussed amongst their peers.

But no matter the situation, Teen PEP hopes to be a source of information and available for anyone seeking help.

"Come to us Teen PEP members," said one senior on the panel. "This is what we are here for."

Contact Caitlin Honan:

609-272-7227

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