Courtesy Planned Parenthood

For the 10th year and counting, teenage representatives from Planned Parenthood, a nonprofit providing reproductive health services, have been leading a peer education program, expanding Elm City youths’ access to sex education.

As participants in Planned Parenthood of Southern New England’s Students Teaching About Responsible Sexuality program, 22 teens now work in 10 local high schools including James Hillhouse High School, Wilbur Cross High School and Common Ground High School to teach a curriculum to other students.

“Being able to talk to a peer can be very powerful,” said Pierrette Comulada Silverman, vice president of education and training at PPSNE.

She added that many teenagers become anxious as they go through puberty, wondering whether their experiences with their bodies, intimacy and sexuality are normal. Speaking to a trained peer can help, Comulada Silverman said.

The STARS mentors provide advice on relationships and reproductive health care and refer students to other support systems. STARS also runs a teen clinic where adolescents can go to get tested for sexually transmitted infections, talk to a clinician or just be in a safe space. Program members participate in STARS for all four years of high school, and the older students have co-facilitated sexual education classes as well, she said.

The STARS carry out health initiatives in different schools, including tabling in lunchrooms, but all are meant to serve as resources to their peers, Comulada Silverman said. Participants at Wilbur Cross High School have access to their own bulletin board, where they can post sexual health information.

Alicia Vignola, administrative analyst for New Haven Public Schools’ Coordinated School Health Program, said the district works with the STARS program as an effort to supplement school-run sex ed classes, aiming to ensure that students are empowered and equipped with information to make healthy, responsible choices.

The district began using the Michigan Model for Health during the 2013–14 school year, said Althea Brooks, director of coordinated school health for NHPS. She added that the STARS program is considered a best practice by the United States Department of Education.

While the Michigan Model is abstinence-based, Vignola said the program teaches not only abstinence, but also includes correct condom use, modern contraceptive methods and places to access contraceptive information, products and services. That curriculum also includes lessons about communicating sexual boundaries and resisting sexual pressure, teaching consent only in terms of laws about underage sexual intercourse.

But Comulada Silverman said consent is a key part of good sex ed.

“Consent means that both people are clear about what is going to happen and they affirm that they are willing participants,” Comulada Silverman said. “Consent education is sexual assault prevention. When one seeks consent, one is checking in with their partner before sexual activity occurs and then throughout to ensure the other wants to continue. Teaching communication skills to young people, and allowing them to practice those skills, is imperative as these skills are fundamental to healthy sexual intimacy.”

Comulada Silverman added that talking about abstinence is part of a comprehensive sexual education, alongside safe practices for teens who do choose to engage in sexual behavior.

New Haven’s Planned Parenthood is located at 345 Whitney Ave.