Peer Teachers

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Inside a portable room on the campus of Nogales High School in La Puente, a dozen students are intently watching what's happening at the front of the class. They are about to learn a hard-edged lesson, though not one delivered in a traditional manner.

A teenage girl is sitting with her boyfriend, who is doggedly persistent in trying to persuade her to escalate their necking into sex.

"Look, I'm not ready for this," she says. "You don't understand."

"What? Is it condoms? I've got plenty of condoms," he replies, prompting a few knowing grins from students. But an abrupt turn in the dialogue makes it clear this is not a sketch about abstinence verses condoms or birth control.

"No. It's not that," she says. "There's just. . . . There's something . . . you wouldn't understand. I can't tell you."

Suddenly the scene shifts like a flashback, and the girl is sitting next to another male.

"Sweetheart, come here and sit on daddy's lap," he says. "Daddy wants to teach you a new game."

Some of the students begin to fidget nervously.

"It'll be our secret, sweetheart," he says. "Promise me you won't tell Mommy."

A cold silence fills the classroom.

During the next few minutes, the skit moves quickly to its conclusion, flipping back and forth between past and present in the girl's life. She finally reveals to her boyfriend the sexual abuse she has been suffering at home, recounting how her mother refuses to listen or believe that her husband is molesting her daughter. The boyfriend helps her get out of the house and into a safe environment.

The dramatic--and at times almost eerie--recounting of one girl's experience of abuse is all in a day's work for the students who make up Promoters of Health, a peer counseling group launched more than a year ago at the high school.

The program's 25 students, a hybrid of a theater troupe and a crisis counseling team, have turned the classrooms of this 2,300-student high school into a stage to reach their peers on almost every hot-button social issue imaginable.

Along with sexual abuse and incest, skits produced by Promoters of Health deal with teen pregnancy, substance abuse, gang violence, domestic abuse, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS. They also take on some issues that don't have the same shock appeal, but are just as important to teens, such as nutrition and access to health care.

While peer intervention is hardly a new concept, the make-up, background, scope and approach of Promoters of Health, as well as the response they seem to be getting, are catching the attention of school districts and government agencies from San Gabriel to Santa Barbara.

"These students know that their peers need to hear a positive voice on these issues," said Dorothy Daniels, who coordinates the program for the Rowland Unified School District. "Their message is so much stronger than if we just send some adults into classrooms to say, 'Hey, kids, you really shouldn't join a gang because. . . .' They have more currency as peers. They've walked the walk. And these are the streets they know by heart."

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Mostly juniors and seniors, the students in Promoters of Health come from otherwise diverse backgrounds, ranging from popular campus leaders with strong grades to borderline gang members who were ready to drop out of school.

Since the inception of the group, which evolved in part from a peer anti-smoking group, Promoters of Health have performed their skits and engaged their fellow high school students in dialogue on these issues at dozens of high schools throughout the region. Administrators estimate that the group interacts with more than 5,000 students each year, performing in front of small classes and large assemblies. The program is being duplicated at neighboring Rowland High School, as well as in Santa Barbara, where the group performed last year.

Although created with a $26,000 grant from Citrus Valley Health Partners, which is made up of a string of hospitals in the east San Gabriel Valley that continues to support the group with spot funding for travel expenses, the program carries minimal costs, administrators say. The students, who are broken up into two teams, have received training from an array of professionals, ranging from drama coaches to psychologists. Ron D'Alessandro, a veteran educator at the high school, works with the students daily to help them refine--and sometimes rein in--their approach.

"I help keep them up to date on various facts and figures that are relevant to what they are talking about," he said. "I also check their skits and make sure everything is going to be kosher for the district. We can't get too racy."

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The students seem pleased with the latitude they've been given, although they noted that there are agendas they have to comply with.

"When we do the teen pregnancy or STD skits, we focus on abstinence rather than condoms," said Cecilia Galdamez, a 17-year-old senior. "When we talk about condoms, it's basically to note that they are not 100% effective. But students need to know that." In some schools at which Promoters of Health has performed, mentioning condoms was not permitted.

It was clear from the group's recent performance on its home turf at Nogales that it is talking about issues that students deal with every day. After the skit on sexual abuse, a reporter asked the students how many of them knew someone who had an experience similar to that of the girl's in the sketch. Most of the female students raised their hands.

During a three-night awareness seminar on STD and AIDS that the group performed in the district, 15 students sought free medical referrals to a clinic, according to program coordinators. The seminar drew more than 100 students a night.

After each presentation, the performers take questions and talk with their peers about the featured issue, and classes are given a quiz to gauge how much of the information is getting through to students. Referrals to professional services are made, and additional resources are offered.

Evey Barales, a 17-year-old senior in the group, said that each member brings his or her own personal experience to bear as the students huddle together pounding out story lines.

"Once certain things happen to you in life, whether it's child abuse or losing a loved one to gangs, you don't want it to happen to the people around you," she said. "We're doing something about it, and I know we're making a difference when I see other students with tears in their eyes after our performances."

Even the skits that deal with such seemingly low octane issues as nutrition seem to engage the students.

"One of the students developed that skit because his parents, who both work, were handing him 20 bucks every day so he could feed himself and his little brother," D'Alessandro said. "They were getting tired of fast food every night. This is not an isolated situation among these kids."

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While Rowland Unified and Citrus Valley Health Partners are compiling data to track the effectiveness of the peer interventions, officials and students alike believe they've found something that works.

"These are our kids, and this is the real life they are dealing with out there," said Tom McGuiness, a vice president at Citrus Valley Health Partners who coordinates the institution's community outreach programs.

"While gang violence and teen pregnancy are not considered traditional health issues, they strike to the heart of a healthy community," he said. "When you are in trouble, where do you turn? My generation turned to adults. Parents and teachers. I'm not sure when it changed, but it did. Kids today turn to each other. We are training kids to deal with it."

Piero Nakasato, an 18-year-old senior in the group, couldn't agree more.

"Sex, drugs and violence are what's out there today. That's what we're dealing with, day in, day out," he said. "Just being in Promoters has made me open my eyes more to what's going on and forced me to confront it. We're taking the blinders off, and if we reach just one student, then it's worth it."

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