Mr. Health Teacher

Real Education for the Real World

Teaching About Human Trafficking in Health Class

I was very glad to be a part of this story in The Chronicle of Social Change.

by Katie Morell

The first day of October 2015 was a good day for Chris Pepper. As content specialist for health programs at the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), Pepper and his team had been working on a revised health education curriculum for the city’s high school students when news broke that California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law AB 329.

Dubbed the California Healthy Youth Act, the law made comprehensive sexuality education mandatory for all middle school and high school students and “requires school districts to provide instruction on human trafficking.

While comprehensive sex ed is now the law, the state is not currently patrolling local compliance with the Healthy Youth Act. The ACLU has been proactively promoting the law in the absence of state monitoring.

Pepper started as an SFUSD health teacher in 2002, and while some schools had set curriculums, the city and state lacked subject uniformity.

“The school health program provided some guidance on curriculum, but it ended up that teachers would choose the materials that worked best for their students,” Pepper said.

The district brought some consistency to the process in 2014. The sexuality education curriculum, called Be Real. Be Ready. and built with the assistance of the San Francisco Department of Public Health, was introduced across SFUSD high schools.

be real be ready smallerWith the mandate on human trafficking education, Pepper needed to update Be Real. Be Ready. and develop a middle school curriculum. Pepper partnered with Huckleberry Youth Programs’ intervention services coordinator Carly Devlin to create a program that was separate and appropriate for both age groups.

“We really wanted to provide what human trafficking and exploitation looks like in a lot of different ways, and include a piece on labor trafficking,” Devlin said. “We thought about it in terms of power and control and community health — meeting young people where they’re at and creating space for the complexities of issues.”

Conscious Curricula
By early 2016, teams of teachers, service providers and city officials were gathering to create an updated high school curriculum and develop a new one for middle schools. Lessons were rolled out in late 2016 and spring 2017.

Two lessons were added to Be Real. Be Ready. The first introduced concepts related to labor trafficking, and the second focused on sex trafficking.

“The leap of talking about sex trafficking can be a hard thing to do, which is why we start with labor trafficking and discuss situations familiar to a lot of people, like not being paid a full wage and being threatened by a supervisor,” Pepper said. “Talking about that first helps young people make the connection that sex trafficking is another form of exploitation.”

The middle school adaptation was dubbed Healthy Me. Healthy Us. It is a 13-lesson version with language altered to be age appropriate.

“For middle school students, we talk about situations under the context of consent and boundaries,” Huckleberry’s Devlin said. “We talk about why it is important to have boundaries not just with strangers, but with people you know, because often traffickers are known people in a child’s life.”

Devlin adds that the middle school curriculum was designed to understand the systemic piece that goes into trafficking — discussing who has power and who doesn’t.

“Vulnerability isn’t just at an individual level and students need to hear that,” she said. “There are systems that get youth into vulnerable places like foster care and the like.”

The final lesson in Healthy Me. Healthy Us., which was largely created by SFUSD Health Liaison Coordinator Rosalia Lopez, discusses human trafficking, and starts with the story of an anonymous teenager who was trafficked. It also includes discussion questions for the class afterward.

The high school version spans the last two lessons of the curriculum and goes into more depth for middle school students.

“When we looked at materials available around the topic, we found that most were written as interventions for student groups of people who’d been trafficked themselves, and that isn’t necessarily our audience,” Pepper said. “We have to be aware that some people in the room have experience or some connection and some don’t and we need to be sensitive to those realities.”

Curriculum authors also walked the fine line between scariness versus reality.

“We don’t want to make the world scary for young people,” Pepper said. “We help combat that by helping them understand their rights, how to advocate for themselves, where to go for help and how to understand their self-worth.”

Spreading the Word
The entirety of both middle school and high school programs are available online. Pepper said he has received interest from school districts in other parts of the state.

“Districts are organically reaching out. We’ve worked with Tamalpais Union High School District in the North Bay and I’m heading out later this week to visit the Oxnard [Union High] School District, near Los Angeles, on how to teach the curriculum,” Pepper said. “I think school districts across the state are realizing that the requirements of the California Healthy Youth Act are extensive, and they need to change lessons to meet those requirements and they are looking to us for help.”

Helping Young People Set Their Own Limits

“JUST SAY NO!” That’s often the advice parents give teens about how to deal with peer pressure. It seems simple, but sometimes saying no isn’t so easy. Young people might be worried about being teased, feeling embarrassed, or losing their friends. Setting limits — and sticking to them — can actually be a major challenge for teens. Doing it well takes consideration, skill and practice.

As teens get older, they’’ll likely be spending more time with friends and on their own. Developmentally, that’s exactly what you’re supposed to do, and it’s an important part of becoming independent. But becoming independent also means making their own decisions about how they spend their time and what they do with their bodies.

Their friends might be experimenting with drinking or drugs, having sex, or engaging in other types of potentially risky behavior. Even if they aren’t directly asked to join them, they might feel pressure to fit in. But doing things to fit in is basically the opposite of true independence.

I tell young people that if they really want to be independent, it’s important to really think about their own values. They need to figure out what kind of behavior they’re comfortable with, and speak up for themselves. They don’t have to evangelize their beliefs or try to convince anyone that their way is the best way. They just have to act in a way that feels right to them and fits with their own values. And that means they have to spend some serious time thinking about exactly what their values are.

I explain that one of the easiest ways to get some clarity about your own values is to simply make a list. You could call it ’“What’s cool with me?” or “What are my limits?” I tell them to think about the big decisions that teens have to make and how they feel about them. Run through some realistic situations — it’s a lot easier to make the right choice if you’ve thought about it in advance.

For decisions about substance use, it helps to think in specific terms. Here are some things you could say to a young person: “How do you feel about smoking cigarettes? Is it something you never see yourself doing? If so, congratulations. You’ve just clarified one of your limits. Now think about other drugs, like alcohol, marijuana and cocaine. What are your own beliefs about using them? What will you absolutely not do? Are you willing to be around friends who are using them even if you’re not? Are you willing to get in a car with a driver who is high or drunk?

For dating and relationships, young people need to think closely about what they are comfortable with. When do they think is the right time to start dating? What exactly does that mean to them? What are they comfortable with when it comes to physical contact? Is making out ok? Touching? Sex? Where are their boundaries? Are random hookups ok with them, or do they want a long, serious relationship? These things can be tricky to figure out, but it’s a lot easier to think clearly about them in advance than when a cute person is whispering suggestions in their ear.

Now that they have a basic idea about their values, it’s time to think about how they’re going to communicate them to other people. Think about the reasons behind their limits and practice stating them out loud. Maybe they are on a sports team and would face penalties if they were caught. Maybe they don’t want to put their college plans in jeopardy. Maybe they have a family history of alcoholism or drug addiction and they don’t want to take chances with themselves.

Just like shooting baskets or solving algebra equations, setting limits gets easier with practice. Young people can rehearse on their own. Practicing saying things like “That’s cool if you want to do it, but it’s not for me,” “I promised myself I wouldn’t ___________ until I’m done with high school,” or even “I would love to join in, but my mom is really really strict, and I can’t take a chance on her finding out” can help. If teens are clear and firm when they set their limits, their friends will respect them, and they’ll feel good about being true to their own values.

This post was originally published by the Adolescent Health Working Group

Radio Interview: How Do We Teach About Consent in K-12 Schools?

Wondering how we teach about consent, sexual health, and human trafficking in San Francisco schools? Asking how we handle this differently in our elementary, middle and high schools? Hear all about it in this 12-minute radio interview I did with my co-worker Erica Lingrell for KALW’s “Looking at Education” show.

I’m so glad I got a chance to discuss SFUSD’s ongoing partnership with Expect Respect, and why I think it’s important to teach about healthy dating in schools. I also talk about why, as the parent of a teenager, I value comprehensive sexuality education. Toward the end of the interview, I share some tips for parents about how to start talking about sex and relationships with teens, and how health class can be a catalyst for those talks.

I hope you enjoy listening!

“Yes Means Yes” – A Message High School Health Classes Need to Hear


Did you know that California requires public high schools to teach affirmative consent, also known as “yes means yes”?

SB 695, signed into law in October 2015, “requires public high schools to develop curriculum that covers “yes means yes,” the consequences of sexual violence and how to develop healthy peer relationships built on mutual respect.” This bill, coupled with the California Healthy Youth Act, is designed to make consent and healthy relationships a major part of sex education in the state.

As this bill was being rolled out, I was thrilled to be part of a panel on KALW’s City Visions. The panel features:

  • Shafia Zaloom, a teacher and administrator at Bay Area schools for 20 years and currently a Health Educator at the Urban School in San Francisco, where she creates and oversees all student and parent health education.
  • Hanna Pastrano, a City College student who works with Expect Respect San Francisco, which offers “healthy relationship workshops” to every freshman health class within the San Francisco Unified School District.
  • Sofie Karasek, an anti-sexual violence activist and a co-founder of End Rape on Campus. Prior to her graduation from the University of California, Berkeley in 2015, she spearheaded several federal complaints against Berkeley and has assisted students nationwide in holding universities accountable to Title IX. Sofie has also been a leading advocate for California’s groundbreaking affirmative consent law.
  • And me: Christopher Pepper, a Teacher on Special Assignment with the San Francisco Unified School District, where I help coordinate the district’s high school sexuality education and HIV prevention efforts.


New Ideas for Teaching About Tobacco and E-Cigarettes

I was thrilled to be part of a @SHAPE_America‘s November Twitter chat. I joined expert educators from around the country to share ideas about how we can use a skills-based approach to educate students about the risks of tobacco and vapes.

Check out the archive to catch up on all the good ideas and resources. As always, I’m on Twitter here: @mrhealthteacher.

Yes, You CAN Say That in Class

Talk about a frustrating read! In her article “This Sex Educator Was Not Allowed to Say ‘Clitoris’ in the Classroom,” Diana Spechler writes about some of the prohibitions sex educators face in classrooms across the United States.

Reading it, I felt grateful to teach in a district that fully embraces comprehensive sexuality education.  Standing in front of a room of teens talking about condoms or vulvas is challenging enough without worrying that you might say the wrong word and put your job on the line.

San Francisco Unified School District’s high school curriculum includes the information teenagers need to understand their sexuality. We talk about relationships, sexual orientation, gender identity, masturbation, orgasm, birth control, and pregnancy options. We use an inclusive, sex-positive approach to our education, but focus on health and safety, stick to the facts, and steer clear of sharing our personal values. As long as they follow those guidelines, I am able to reassure high school teachers that “Yes, we actually can say that in class!”

Although sharing anecdotes sometimes seems like a good way to connect with students, we train our health education teachers never talk about their own sexual or dating practices. Instead, we encourage teachers to create a safe space for students to address the facts of comprehensive sexuality, understand the multiple topics involved, and help them find additional information and support.

When I first introduce myself to students, I make a pledge to them – I will never lie to them, I won’t exaggerate things to make them seem worse than they are, and if they ask about something I don’t know about, I will do my best to get them a real answer.

We can only expect students to make responsible decisions if they have truthful, reliable information on which to base those decisions.  Our job is to give that to them.

There is overwhelming evidence that that “abstinence-only” programs fail to keep anyone abstinent or safe. The alternative that is backed by research is comprehensive sexuality education – a full set of lessons that includes information about abstinence, but also provide young people with medically accurate information about human anatomy,  birth control options, sexually transmitted infections, safer sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and sexual choices.

Studies show that most parents in our country support comprehensive sex education, but that’s not always reflected in what’s being taught in the classroom. There is lots of room for change on this issue. Find out what’s being taught in your community, and if you don’t like it, advocate for change. Advocates for Youth has some great advice about how to do this. Take a look at the National Sexuality Education Standards for ideas about what should be taught, and check out some of the wonderful curriculum that is available free online, like Be Real. Be Ready. and 3Rs: Rights, Respect, Responsibility. If the laws in your state need to change, take a look at California’s Health Youth Act (which requires districts for teach comprehensive sex ed at middle school and high school) as a model. Parents, teachers and students should all have a voice on this issue!

Celebrating #HealthEd with the CDC

I am thrilled to be part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Adolescent and School Health #oldschoolDASH campaign to celebrate health education. Check out all the portraits of health advocates around the country.

Here’s the Problem With California’s Groundbreaking Sex Ed Law

I was very glad to be a part of this Mother Jones story


Five years ago, budget cutbacks in the Fresno Unified School District put an end to “Sociology for Living,” a half-year course for ninth graders—and the only mandatory class taught in the 74,000-student district that involved sex education. Fresno has some of California’s highest rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia, plus the sixth-highest teen birth rate in the state. Yet school officials dismantled the curriculum, according to an investigation by the Fresno Bee, passing off lessons from the class, including HIV prevention, to other teachers. They explained the cut as a way for students to fit more AP classes and electives into their schedules.

A local teen pregnancy prevention group, Fresno Barrios Unidos, soon began a four-year effort to institute comprehensive sex education, according to executive director Socorro Santillan. They met with school board officials and trained youth to advocate comprehensive sex education in their high schools. But only after California passed the Healthy Youth Act in October 2015, making sex education mandatory in all districts, were they able to reach an agreement with the district. Classroom teachers would cover basic lessons like goal setting and life planning, while Fresno Barrios Unidos volunteers would teach subjects that were, Santillan says, “a little more touchy,” like STDs and birth control.

When the Healthy Youth Act passed last fall, California joined 23 other states in requiring that all schools teach teenagers about sex. But California’s law goes further, mandating that comprehensive lessons start in middle school and include information on abortion, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. It’s also the only state to require sex education be medically accurate, age-appropriate, and culturally inclusive, without promoting religion. Sharla Smith, who has overseen HIV and sex education for the California Department of Education since 2005, calls the new law “the most robust sex education law in the country.” Most lessons will start this school year.

There’s just one problem: The state has little way to ensure school districts teach to these new standards. While Smith heads a team that keeps in touch with counties and districts, the state stopped auditing districts for compliance about four years ago because of dwindling funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We’re trying to do the best we can by hook or by crook,” Smith said. “I literally just do not have the money.”

“How will we know that everyone is actually being taught this? Because the law has gotten a lot of publicity,” said Christopher Pepper, who oversees San Francisco Unified’s sex education program. “I’m hoping that leads to greater compliance.”

While districts like San Francisco and Los Angeles Unified have long taught comprehensive sex education and are simply tweaking parts of their curriculum or adapting existing lessons for middle school use, it’s a different story in poor, rural areas like the Central Valley, according to Phyllida Burlingame, who works on the issue for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Northern California office. With fewer resources and a more conservative culture, some of those districts have a history of ignoring even the state’s old, looser requirements. That was the case in Clovis Unified School District, which the ACLU sued in 2012 for inadequate sex education—including using a textbook that lacked a single mention of condoms. (A judge ruled against the district last year.) “School district administrators feel that this is a complicated and challenging subject and parents in their community may not support it,” Burlingame said. “They tend to self-censor what they teach.”

Since 2003, the state has told schools that if they chose to teach sex education, they had to make sure lessons were comprehensive rather than focused on abstinence until marriage. Yet a 2011 survey from researchers at the University of California-San Francisco found that many school districts were not complying with the law. Forty-two percent did not teach about FDA-approved contraception methods in middle and high school, and only 25 percent mentioned emergency contraception. Sixteen percent told their students that condoms “are not an effective means” of protecting against pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease—an inaccurate statement, the study noted.

“California’s state financial crisis has eroded much of its network of valuable preventative health programs for young people, making schools one of the last strongholds for providing adolescents with comprehensive sex education,” the authors wrote. “Policies set at the district level may not correspond to the actual instruction taking place.”

After the financial crash, many schools also stopped teaching health classes or changed them from a graduation requirement to an elective, Smith says, and lessons on HIV and STD prevention were incorporated into science or English classes instead. Schools that dropped their health programs will not be subject to a second law, also passed last year, requiring health curricula to include information on affirmative consent—the “yes means yes” standard for consent on California college campuses.

Smith is optimistic, though, that schools will continue to react to rising STD rates among teenagers by implementing the comprehensive lessons required under the new law. “Schools have really been clamoring to teach more sex education, saying we need to do this for our students’ health,” she said.

Still, in the absence of state oversight, the task of ensuring that school districts are talking to kids about safe sex will fall to local groups like Fresno Barrios Unidos. And as the schools get back into gear for the fall and begin implement their lessons, the ACLU will be watching and lending support, Burlingame says: “Districts are aware of this new law and understand they should be implementing it. We’re counting on them to do so.”

California Schools Scrambling to Comply with New Sex Ed Laws

I was very glad to be a part of this story in the California Health Report

By Lynn Graebner

Many middle and high schools across the state, plagued with cases of sexual harassment, assault and even sex trafficking on campus, are embracing two new laws making sex education mandatory for the first time in California.

Schools are welcoming the new laws as they wrestle with how to keep students safe and prevent dangerous situations that have led to investigations and legal action. The federal Office for Civil Rights is currently investigating Berkeley Unified School District after a parent filed a complaint in December of 2014 charging the district with not adequately responding to sexual harassment on campus.

The complaint stemmed from incidents such as male students creating an Instagram page with degrading photos and remarks about female students. Female students also testified at the Berkeley school board meeting in 2014 about being groped and sexually harassed at school and not getting support from school administration. Students have formed a group called BHS (Berkeley High School) Stop Harassing.

“It really kicked us into high gear,” said Susan Craig, director of student services and interim Title IX coordinator for the district. “We want to be ahead of the curve in terms of sexual harassment.” Berkeley High is educating students and staff about how to recognize and report sexual harassment and is making the reporting process less intimidating. And the district is putting funding into a pilot of the school’s revised Social Living course beefing up the sex education portion to meet requirements of the new California Healthy Youth Act.

That law took effect in January and requires schools to cover an extensive list of topics with 7th to 12th graders. In addition to human development and HIV/AIDS prevention, students will learn about sexual harassment, intimate partner violence, negotiation and refusal skills to avoid coercion into sexual activity and sex trafficking. Schools must also address different sexual orientations, contraception, abortion and adoption options.

That’s a far cry from what some school districts are currently offering.

California middle and high schools have been required to teach students about HIV/AIDS prevention since 1992. What has been optional is comprehensive sexual health education.

And that’s putting districts at risk for lawsuits. Last year the American Academy of Pediatrics sued and won a case against Clovis Unified School District for failing to provide information on how to prevent sexually transmitted infections and for teaching abstinence as the only method for preventing pregnancy. Curriculum was also biased against gay and lesbian students. Cases like this have put districts on alert.

“That’s why districts are worried, there’s precedence,” said Timothy Kordic, HIV/AIDS Prevention Unit Project Advisor for the Los Angeles County School District, which faces its own challenges.

Los Angeles has been identified as one of 13 cities with the highest child sex trafficking activity in the nation, Kordic said. Sex traffickers target low income and foster care kids as well as LGBT and special needs youth.

“We have the population,” Kordic said. Children as young as 11 or 12 are being trafficked, some of them by their boyfriends, he said. So the district will be expanding its curriculum on sexual harassment and adding information about sex trafficking.

But overall the Los Angeles district is a model for the nation in terms of its comprehensive sexual education curriculum, Kordic added. It was the first district nationally to get a chapter on LGBT relationships included in a sex education textbook.

Districts will continue to tailor their sex ed courses to their student populations as long as they adhere to state requirements. Despite the long agenda middle and high schools are now mandated to cover, the state does not provide curriculum, but it does review versions from curriculum companies for use.

And there are volumes of research on how to teach these issues effectively and appropriately, said Sharla Smith, school health education consultant for the California Department of Education. School districts are poring through existing and emerging lesson plans from curriculum companies responding to the new requirements. And some districts are writing their own.

“Local control is in effect,” Smith said.

At Berkeley High the school year started with a freshman welcome assembly called SPARK, Student Power Actualized Through Respect and Kinship. It addressed a host of topics including discrimination, sexual harassment and consent.

Students watched the Tea and Consent video comparing initiating sex with making someone a cup of tea. The analogy stresses that you don’t pressure or force someone to drink tea if they don’t want it and you certainly don’t pour it down their throat if they’re unconscious or asleep.

“No packaged curriculum is going to hit all the issues that are relevant in your community,” said Hasmig Minassian, a teacher leader at Berkeley High. So staff there have been developing their own curriculum. Now all 9th graders will get the same comprehensive material Minassian said.

School districts that require high school students to complete a health education course for graduation have another mandate to meet as of January 2016. They are required to include affirmative consent instruction stemming from the passage of Senate Bill 695, first-of-its-kind legislation nationally. That law followed the Yes Means Yes law passed in 2014 combatting sexual assault on college campuses.

To teach affirmative consent San Francisco Unified partners with Expect Respect SF, a City College of San Francisco program that collaborates with local domestic and sexual violence prevention programs. College students come into the high schools to present lessons on healthy relationships. They talk about affirmative consent, how to empower oneself and set boundaries in relationships, said Christopher Pepper, a teacher on special assignment at the district.

And San Francisco teachers have collaborated with staff from health clinics and community organizations in the city to develop a sex education curriculum called Be Real Be Ready. San Francisco’s high schools have been using it for three years and it is free to other districts, Pepper said.

“One of the unique things about the curriculum is we’re able to build in multiple points of connection with people in the health community,” he said. That helps make students feel more comfortable about using those resources when they need them. In addition, all standard San Francisco high school campuses have wellness centers to serve students’ social and emotional needs.

Parents and guardians appear to be on board with the more comprehensive approach to sex education. They have the ability to excuse their children from these lessons, but Craig said of the 3,000 students at Berkeley High, none have been pulled from class.

Teachers are also supportive of having more class time to deal with such sensitive and important issues, Minassian said. “There’s no other place in their lives where we’re guaranteed they’re getting this.”

The Key to Curbing Campus Sexual Assault Lies in High School Health Class

I was very glad to be part of this story.


Sarah C., a senior at a small public high school in New Jersey, remembers her freshman year health class for all the wrong reasons.

“In ninth grade, my health teacher wouldn’t say ‘vagina,'” said Sarah, who spoke on condition of partial anonymity because she is still a minor.

Her teacher, an older man, was labeling the female reproductive system. “He was drawing a diagram, saying all of the terms out loud, then he got to the vagina and couldn’t say anything,” she said.

In 11th grade, another health teacher lectured Sarah’s class about a gang rape that occurred at Vanderbilt University in 2013, offering it as a cautionary tale for female students. “He basically told us, ‘You won’t get gang raped if you don’t drink,'” Sarah said.

“For three years you learn that nothing in these classes is going to help you — it’s all scare tactics,” Sarah said. “Then you get into the final health class where they’re teaching you some really important things you need to understand to go to college, or work or whatever, but no one takes it seriously.”

According to a report in March from the Guttmacher Institute, an advocacy group that focuses on reproductive health, 26 states still require high school health courses to stress abstinence as the best way to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and avoid becoming the victim of sexual violence. But in practice, such programs tend to emphasize abstinence exclusively and fail to equip students with information about consent. Lack of information has consequences: States with abstinence-only education have the highest rates of teen pregnancy.

More troubling, when high school students move on to college, abstinence-only education can leave them woefully unprepared to navigating new friends, new relationships and new expectations when it comes to dating and sex. One in 4 women will experience unwanted sexual contact during their college experience, and 98% of rapists will walk free.

The legislation: In October, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 329, mandating comprehensive sex education for students in grades 7 through 12. The legislation — the first to establish a legal definition for consent aimed at educational institutions — also revised the state’s anti-rape mantra from “no means no” to “yes means yes,” signaling that the absence of a “no” is not enough to green light a sexual encounter; to establish full consent, all parties involved must consent actively.

i heart consent.pngThe legislation made California the first state to require high schools to teach affirmative consent in the nation, serving as a model for states like Michigan and New York, whose legislatures later followed suit in upholding “yes means yes” as a new standard.

“Affirmative consent legislation isn’t just about the more than 20% of young women and girls who will have to live as assault survivors,” wrote California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and Hannah-Beth Jacksonthe authors of the “yes means yes” bill, in the Washington PostIt’s about the 100% of women who have to live every day, never quite certain of their physical safety. Research shows that with affirmative consent education, we can create a culture of respect.”

Despite colleges’ best efforts to prevent campus sexual assault by trotting out crash courses on consent during freshman orientation, by then the lack of comprehensive sex education has already done its damage.

Shafia Zaloom has been encouraging high school students to talk about sexual violence for more than two decades. A health teacher at the Urban School of San Francisco, she said men who commit sexual assault in college do so disproportionately during their first six weeks on campus, a time college administrators and media outlets have come to refer to as the “red zone.”

With high-profile sexual assault cases at universities like Yale and Columbia, colleges have begun wake up to the epidemic of sexual violence on their campuses. Scrambling for solutions, schools across the country have expanded their Title IX resources and applied for millions of dollars in funding to help address student complaints over the way cases of sexual misconduct are handled, as well as bringing bystander intervention programs to campuses.

“If you want to prevent sexual assault you have to get in front of it and that starts with talking about it in high school,” Zaloom said.

Zaloom’s classes don’t just teach students the basics about sex ed — reproductive anatomy, menstruation, STIs — but address the questions and experiences teens face on a day-to-day basis. Rather than lecture, she encourages students to speak frankly about sexual identity, hook-up culture and healthy relationships. Zaloom asks students to imagine hypothetical situations that help them think through issues of sexual violence, dedicating targeted lessons to bystander intervention and consent. She said she starts out conversations on consent with a scenario: “If a kid takes your bike without asking, they’re stealing it,” Zaloom said. “But, if they have your consent, they’re borrowing it.”

Christopher Pepper, a health teacher at the San Francisco Unified School District, had been working on a new health curriculum for four years when Brown passed California’s landmark legislation. Alongside a coalition of teachers, public-health workers and employees from community-based organizations, Pepper has helped standardize the city’s sex education with a 24-part curriculum called “Be Real. Be Ready.”


“Just like other subjects in school, health education should begin early and continue throughout the educational life of a student,” Pepper said. “We do that with math and reading and social studies, and I think that should be the case with health as well.”

Pepper said sex ed opponents often assume teens are too immature to handle information about sex. But he has found the opposite to be true.

“Teens are eager for information about what’s going on with their bodies and want a safe space to discuss healthy relationships and the challenges and decisions they might have to contend with during high school,” Pepper said.

“Teens are eager for information about what’s going on with their bodies and want a safe space to discuss healthy relationships.”

Pepper’s curriculum includes exercises that require students to practice communicating their sexual limits. In one lesson, he asks students to write down what each character would say in a hypothetical sexual encounter to tell their partner what they’re comfortable with. What should Leina say to Eleazer if she wants to have penetrative sex but only if they use condoms? What should Bryant say to Chris if he doesn’t want to do more than hug and kiss until they graduate high school?

Pepper then discuss how drinking and drugs could affect these decisions and who students can go to if they need help setting boundaries.

“Having those conversations in a classroom setting in a frank and direct way helps lay the foundation,” Pepper said. “If the baseline understanding is that consent is vital, and you talk about things that can interfere with consent like drugs and alcohol, you’re preventing future sexual assaults and unwanted sexual encounters.”

Those who cringe at the memory of having “the talk” with their parents might wonder what it’s like to have these discussions with your teacher in front of all of your peers.

Lydia Sears, a sophomore in Zaloom’s class, said that while she feels comfortable going to her parents with questions about sex, she prefers bringing them to class.

“Asking questions and being honest in class is easier for a lot of students, including myself, because there stands a sense of confidentiality within classroom discussions that may not exist in direct discussion with parents,” she said.

Brian Elliott, a parent at the same school, said that while he’s had conversations about sex and sexual assault with his son, sometimes parents aren’t the most equipped to have them. Eliot’s experience with sex ed three decades ago didn’t include topics like consent.

“These are young adults who are going out in the world and you want them to be as prepared as possible,” Elliott said. “This is not about values — this is about how you handle social pressures, dangerous situations and those things happen to everybody at some point.”

Sears said Zaloom has always encouraged students to ask whatever they want — no holds barred. “Of course there have been funny or awkward moments,” Sears said. “Talking about sex is an inevitable call for some giggles.”

When students in Pepper’s classroom want to laugh, they laugh, he said.

“It can be a funny, unusual thing to be talking about penises and vulvas and sexual activity with students in schools, so sometimes we laugh and that’s totally fine,” he said. “I think providing some space for laughter but also making it clear that these are serious topics is important.”

Now students are demanding change too. At Laurel, an all-girls private school in Shaker Heights, a small suburb in Ohio, a group of students expected more of their teachers — after all, part of the school’s mission is to “inspire each girl to fulfill her promise and to better the world.” When health classes failed to touch on consent, Laurel’s feminist society started having these conversations themselves — and spurred concrete curricular change.

Alumna Lissa Blitz, a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University, said when she joined the feminist society her first year at Laurel, the group’s upperclassmen were railing against the school’s sex ed. When the senior graduated and it was her class’s turn to lead the organization, Blitz said they remained devoted to holding discussions about sexual assault at weekly general body meetings.

“Since Laurel school prides itself on such feminist values and comprehensive, inclusive sex ed is very directly intertwined with those, it’s very contradictory that our sex ed is lacking especially with regards to sexual assault and consent,” Blitz said.

She said as the feminist society continued to address these concerns, more and more students joined the group to talk about what Blitz called “the missing pieces of sex ed” at the school. Since she’s graduated, Blitz said Laurel has integrated lessons on consent once largely relegated to their fem society meeting to the ninth and 10th grade curricula.

But across the country, students like Sarah are still forced to reckon with these difficult topics on their own. To fill in blanks in her education, Sarah said and her female friends have had to take it upon themselves to educate themselves. Talking to friends and family as well as reading articles people share on Facebook and Tumblr have helped her make up for what teachers won’t teach.

More worrisome though, said Sarah, is what will happen when she goes away to college where most of her peers have also been denied comprehensive sex education.

“For girls my age now, this is something you think about when you apply to college,” said Sarah, who is heading to a small New York liberal arts college in the fall. “You hear enough of these stories about campus sexual assault and you know when you go to college someone will be assaulted and that person could be you or someone you know.

“Throughout the whole experience of being educated in a public school, the focus has really been weighted toward, ‘as a woman, how do you prevent it from happening to you?’ and much less, ‘as a man, how do you not sexually assault someone?’ If you talk about consent earlier — if you plant the seed — it makes a huge difference.”

« Older posts

© 2018 Mr. Health Teacher

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑