By ZOE MORGAN
In some Washington, D.C. high schools, sex education doesn’t just come from teachers, but also from peers trained in providing instruction and support.
The Young Women’s Project, a local non-profit, trains hundreds of students every year to be peer health educators, as part of their Peer Health and Sexuality Education Project (PHASE). These students then go into local high schools and provide services to fellow students, including handing out condoms and making referrals to local health centers.
“We run trainings on sexual health, reproductive justice and workforce development, so it’s all packed in one,” Reproductive Justice Coordinator Ayari Aguayo said. “And the youth get paid for becoming peer health educators in their schools.”
The program began five years ago with around 30 peer educators at six partner schools. Today, there are more than 140 active educators at 24 schools throughout the District, Reproductive Justice Manager Jessica Anderson said.
“It has been a huge impact,” Aguayo said. “We’ve seen the way that they have the conversations has been helpful in debunking myths, in correcting the information that’s out there.”
The students are expected to reach out to 20 peers at school each week, providing a variety of services. This often involves giving out various kinds of condoms – male, female and flavored – and explaining to students how to use them. All students pass a test before they hand out safer sex materials in schools. The peer educators will also refer students to local health centers, often based at their own school. These referrals are most commonly for contraceptives, STI testing and Plan B, as well as pregnancy testing, Anderson said.
In addition to referrals, the peer educators will also offer guidance to students on topics like whether to choose long acting reversible contraception (IUDs and implants). These tend to be good options for teens, Anderson said, because they don’t require remembering to take a pill every day. However, the peer educators are trained to not push any given option on students, but rather to help them think through their own needs.
The peer-to-peer model has been important because students are more likely to listen to those their own age. Students can talk to each other using their own language, and speak about issues in ways that are honest to their own experiences, Aguayo said.
In general, about 25% of the students who receive services each week are repeat users of the program, although this varies widely based on school size and the personality of the educator themselves.
“Especially at the very beginning, our youth tend to have the same students that they’re cycling through,” Anderson said. “And as they get known in the school, then we start finding that they get a lot more youth who just know that they’re a peer educator, or heard that they have condoms, or heard that they can talk about what their options might be around sexual and reproductive heath.”
Before students begin working in schools, they complete a ten-hour initial training on anatomy, sexually transmitted infections, contraceptives and data collection, as well as a 24-hour training on being peer health educators. Once that training is complete, they continue to receive additional development on topics like communication, conflict resolution and workforce development.
The program receives funding from the HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD and TB Administration within the District Department of Health. This funding helps to pay the students who work in the program.
“At the core this is a workforce development program,” Anderson said. “And so all of our youth are paid for their time in the office, the work that they do in school and anything else that their doing.”
Although students begin by working in schools as peer educators, more involved students will also meet with city council members and other local decision makers to advocate for health education within the District, Anderson said.
The Young Women’s Project holds multiple recruitment drives throughout the year. Because only a little more than half of the students who attend trainings will remain in the program, more students are always being recruited. Many students join the program because of word of mouth and peer to peer referrals, but students can also apply online or through events at their schools.
The program has also adapted over time to fit the needs of the schools that it operates in. Originally, the Young Women’s Project was targeted exclusively towards young women, and involved more direct education in schools. Now, a third of the peer educators are men and the program’s model is based on community peer education.
Students also used to do group interventions, making presentations at lunch or in classes. However, this didn’t work well because of varying support across schools, Anderson said. Some schools didn’t want condoms in lunchrooms or didn’t allow presentations to classes. In the interests of standardizing the program, students now focus on individual peer to peer education.