Teens take lead on free condoms

April 10, 2014

(WBEZ/ Becky Vevea)
Condom dispensers at Foreman High School.

Chicago school and health officials are wising up to the fact that most of what teens know about sex isn’t coming from an adult. It’s coming from their friends, and a lot of it isn’t accurate.

“You can’t just always tell children, ‘Just don’t have sex,’” said Tiffany Seay. She leads CPS’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative. “It’s kind of like telling a child don’t touch the stove. You need to explain why they can’t touch the stove. Because it’s hot and if you touch it you might burn your hand.”

With the help of a $19.7 million federal grant, Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Department of Public Health are aiming to tackle that problem. They’ve got a pilot free-condom project going at two high schools, where they’re using teen peers to help get good information to other students, and to talk up the use of the condoms. The plan is to make free condoms available in 24 high schools next year. And to make them cool.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than half of Chicago teens report having sex, and of those, more than 30 percent aren’t using condoms. The city’s teen pregnancy rates have been falling, but are still 50 percent higher than the rest of the country.

Handing out free condoms in schools isn’t new, but they usually come from adults. One of the two pilot schools giving out free condoms is Foreman High School. Every Tuesday, a group of trained “peer health educators” hands out the free condoms outside Room 103. These are Foreman students--familiar faces to other teens.

“It’s only awkward if you make it awkward,” said Victoria Torres, one of the peer health educators.

As part of the pilot, a group of college students from Columbia College recently designed condom dispensers for Foreman and the other pilot school on the west side, Collins Academy. The idea: if you want to get designers that will “speak” to teens, go to other young people.

“They just came out of high school not long ago,” said Tao Huang, the Columbia professor overseeing the project. “They kind of understand the mentality. So they are students designing for students.”

Huang said the college students talked to the high school students to figure out how the kids wanted to get free condoms--what an effective delivery system would look like. But she said they also found that high school kids thought that the free condoms weren’t as good as the ones you buy. 

“The whole goal is to get people to use it,” Huang said. “You have to somehow provide both and you have to make the free ones more attractive to use.”

Late last month, two dispensers designed by Huang’s students were delivered to Foreman. They are metal rectangular boxes, painted light blue with red stars--the colors of the Chicago flag.

Jesus Garcia, another one of the peer health educators at Foreman, said at first kids will probably make fun of the whole thing; they’ll throw the free condoms around and make jokes. But eventually, he expects the dispensers will become part of the normal surroundings -- like another locker in the hall.

“I think that two’s not enough,” Garcia said. “I think that we’re gonna need more.”

The district plans to make condoms available at more high schools next year and in the future, despite potential pushback from people who think the whole idea encourages teens to have sex.

The research doesn’t back up those claims, and Seay points out there are big consequences to ignoring the fact that Chicago teens are having sex. Data show half of teen parents don’t get a high school diploma before age 22.

“If we continue to turn a blind eye on the fact that our youth are becoming parents at young ages, then we’ve failed them,” Seay said.

Becky Vevea is a producer for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation.