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She Attacks Issues With Teen Work

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Melissa and Danny, Woodrow Wilson High School juniors, had been dating exclusively for several months, so Danny was surprised and angry when he saw Melissa hanging around her ex-boyfriend after school. Danny determined to put an end to it.

“I don’t want you to see him anymore,” the jealous teenager said within earshot of their friends. “Don’t let me catch you with him again.”

“Don’t threaten me,” Melissa said. “He’s just a friend, and I want to be able to see him if I want to. You’re never available anyway.”

As the argument accelerated, Agi Kessler, who had quietly observed the confrontation, intervened.

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“What’s wrong here?” she asked the 30 students who sat in on the staged encounter. “Where is this argument heading and how could they have prevented it from getting there?”

Several hands went up in David Kravetz’s health class, as students offered solutions to a communication problem that Kessler said often results in violence among high school students.

“They need to stay calm and stick to just one issue.”

“They should take responsibility for their own actions.”

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Kessler, a volunteer speaker for Planned Parenthood, complimented the students on their problem-solving strategies. “Melissa” and “Danny,” played by Jessica Ngo, 15, and Richard Alvarez, 14, then reenacted the confrontation, this time using different tactics. The results were markedly improved.

“It’s all about teaching children that they have choices and they must make them wisely,” Kessler, 52, said. “They’re always surprised to learn they have the power to change their lives. These presentations help.”

Planned Parenthood offers five successive talks, each of which tackles subjects high on the priority list of many teens: safely expressing sexuality; healthy relationships; identifying, avoiding and treating sexually transmitted infections; pregnancy and parenting, and birth control.

Kessler, a Woodland Hills businesswoman, joined Planned Parenthood’s Speakers Bureau nine years ago, shortly after the nonprofit organization began writing informational talks in response to school administrators’ requests for help in putting a dent in the rapidly increasing teen pregnancy rate.

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Last year Kessler and 45 other volunteer speakers addressed 27,800 students at 60 schools and community centers citywide.

While health professionals are encouraged by what Planned Parenthood says is an 18% drop in teen pregnancy rates over the last eight years, the nearly 1 million teen pregnancies reported nationwide in 1996 indicate a trend that is far from ending.

“The speakers let us talk openly about sexual matters, which helps,” Richard said. “If you’re heading down the wrong path, they can help us change direction.”

“Agi helps the kids figure out how to handle situations and deal with problems without resorting to violence,” said health teacher Kravetz. “They trust her.”

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Kessler, who raised three children with her husband of 23 years, said she approaches each of her 150 talks each year from a slightly different perspective, based on the insights and questions of the students she encountered previously.

“As I stand there talking, I look around and see that it’s clicking,” Kessler said. “Every child takes something away from the talks. If they choose to use it, all the better.”

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