“Money talks,” says Ryan Krushenick, 27, the laid-back, tattooed program coordinator at the Bristol Hub, a teen center and skatepark in Addison County that serves five regional towns.
That’s why the Hub is shelling out cold, hard cash to incentivize a voluntary sex-education program targeting at-risk youth. Students who complete the 16-hour course at the Hub will each earn a $100 cut of the grant funding that the teen center received to host the class.
It’s not a bribe, Krushenick says — just an enticement to initiate a conversation that he thinks more teens should be having.
“Teens have sexual desires,” Krushenick says. “It happens. Kids don’t want to say they’re doing it, parents don’t want to know, and it takes on a very clandestine nature.”
The Bristol program is funded by the Administration on Children, Youth and Families, and comes by way of the Affordable Care Act — aka “Obamacare.” The new, five-year “personal responsibility education program” (PREP) was created to educate adolescents on both abstinence and contraception.
PREP is doling out more than $55 million in grants to states annually to jump-start programs aimed at preventing teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Another $10 million in grants is available specifically for reaching out to high-risk youth.
Vermont’s cut of the pie is $250,000, which the Department of Health used this year to fund four entities: the Bristol Hub, the Vermont Coalition of Runaway & Homeless Youth Programs, Service Rendered and Windham County Youth Services. All together, these organizations are sponsoring eight sex-ed classes across the state. In the Hub’s case, the center will receive $300 per pupil for up to 12 students who complete the state-approved curriculum.
In Bristol, the course is doled out over four weeks, with two afternoon classes per week. Seven Days arrives for the second lesson just as the teens tumble into the humid, brightly painted center and collapse on mismatched couches in the middle of the room. A faint pizza smell lingers in the air. A few kids play a first-person-shooter video game on one of the big-screen TVs, but when it’s time for class to start, the screen is turned off and taped over with a poster spelling out the house rules of the program.
From the get-go, it’s clear that this isn’t school: First and foremost among the rules for the day is that teens don’t have to answer any questions on topics they feel uncomfortable discussing.
“This is your space,” says teen-center director James Lockridge, who also heads up Big Heavy World in Burlington.
Lockridge leads the first half of the class, which includes a gender-neutral role-play exercise with title characters “Lee” and “Lee.” The two Lees — one reluctant, the other persistent — debate the merits and dangers of unprotected sex. One Lee reassures the other: “Don’t worry. We don’t have anything to worry about.”
“Famous last words!” calls out a wiry, bespectacled kid.
The postscript is a grim one: After having unprotected sex, one of the characters is diagnosed with HIV. “Which Lee?” asks one of the real-life students.
“That’s a bummer,” offers another.
The curriculum is role-play heavy, but by the end of the class the students are enthusiastically playing along. One boy, who spends most of the class fidgeting while sprawled out on the carpet, does an inspired turn as a romantic partner reluctant to have sex. The scene is the group’s jumping-off point for a conversation about what it means to say no.
“If it doesn’t feel like the right time for sex, it probably isn’t,” advises Lockridge, who repeatedly assures students that the curriculum will deal with alternatives to abstinence, as well.
Soon his brow is damp with sweat. “You guys make choices,” Lockridge tells the teens. “You have all the power.”
The students are restive, but they loosen up as the class goes on. They’re especially vociferous when Lockridge and Krushenick ask them to guess, on average, how many high school girls and boys have never had sex. The answers — 35 and 40 percent, respectively — are shouted down with protestations of “No way!”
At other moments, though, the teens seem more like sex-savvy experts than incredulous students. “They’re called STIs now,” one interrupts during a conversation about sexually transmitted diseases — make that infections.
The Vermont Department of Health selected the curriculum from among several dozen federally approved “evidence-based” programs. The students each receive a workbook with the straightforward title Reducing the Risk: Building Skills to Prevent Pregnancy, STDs & HIV. For federal approval, the curriculum had to be road tested, with data to prove the lessons helped teens make better choices. It also had to teach both abstinence and contraception.
In addition to the role plays, the lessons include several take-home assignments — such as a worksheet to guide a sit-down conversation with parents about their thoughts on birth control and sexual activity. Another homework assignment asks students to visit a pharmacy and comparison shop for condoms. Which brands are available, and how much do they cost? How is the teen treated at the shop? Would he or she recommend a friend buy contraceptives there?
The grant funding requires Lockridge and Krushenick to stick fairly close to the book, but Krushenick takes a few liberties when allowed. His adaptations have focused on making the curriculum more gender neutral and queer positive, where possible.
“I don’t want to just teach safe heterosexual sex,” he says. “I want to make sure that, whether they engage in heterosexual or homosexual sex, they have all the information they need.”
Ilisa Stalberg, a public health program administrator with the Vermont Department of Health, is working with centers in Vermont to roll out the sex-ed program. She says the Hub’s plan to incentivize attendance — in this case, with cash — isn’t an uncommon strategy in public health programming.
“We know that incentives work,” she says.
Stalberg adds that officials also know that, by and large, sex education in Vermont works. The state has the third-lowest teen birth rate in the country — behind New Hampshire and Massachusetts — according to 2010 data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Vermont is one of 20 states nationwide, including the District of Columbia, that mandate sex education in schools.
At the end of class, Chelsea Thompson, 16; Taylor Grenier, 17; and Sarah Muller, 14, make for the door. The girls have spent the class wedged into a cozy love seat, chiming in with opinions and answers when Lockridge and Krushenick polled the group.
Thompson and Grenier have already completed the sex-education class at Bristol’s Mount Abraham Union High School — it’s required of all sophomore students. “I loved it, actually,” says the blond, smiling Thompson about the class. But both worry that, while their classmates talk about sex frequently, safe sex isn’t a topic of conversation.
Asked why they’re attending a second sex-ed class, Thompson and Grenier say they’re just looking to be better informed. They’ve already learned something new, Thompson adds, and exchanges a smile with Muller before earnestly explaining the importance of squeezing the air out of the reservoir tip on a condom before use.
It’s exactly the kind of lesson that Krushenick hoped the students would take away. In his everyday interactions with teens at the center, he’s learned that many don’t know the basic rules of contraception — including how to use a condom properly.
“It’s my personal feeling that we don’t have enough sex ed in schools,” Krushenick says. “You can’t have too much.”
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