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SUNDAY BRUNCH

Peer Teachers

March 15, 1998|MARK CROMER | 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.

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