By Blenda Copeland
Topics historically talked about in hush-hush tones were openly discussed April 27 at a teen summit at Russell County High School.
Local non-profit, Teens Empowerment Awareness with ResolutionS (TEARS) Inc., was the annual sponsor. The non-profit educates, mentors and steers at-risk teens away from dangerous life choices.
About 170-180 seniors attended this year’s summit. As they filtered into the auditorium, they were faced with posters screaming statistics such as: “Three in 10 teens becomes pregnant,” and that “76 percent of teens agree to experiment with marijuana.”
TEARS Founder Angelia Walton, volunteers and others coordinated the summit to talk to the seniors about a range of serious, even sensitive, subjects affecting teens. The summit included a nine-person panel of professionals from law enforcement, the juvenile court system, Russell County Department of Public Health, Teen Challenge and more.
During the summit, a group of seniors performed a powerful skit depicting different life situations that teens may have encountered. Walton asked the audience members what they perceived the skit was about. It highlighted situations like a teen who sold drugs and encountered violence, and even molestation in the form of incest and the damage it causes a victim in learning how to interpret what true love really looks like. A member on the panel shared with the audience that every one of the situations depicted in the skit was a circumstance she has seen recently in her field of work – that’s how prevalent the issues are.
Students also heard a testimony from a fellow student who courageously and humbly faced her peers. She shared about her transition from stealing drugs like prescription pills and smoking marijuana to having spent time in jail, having been on house arrest twice and having had to go through the juvenile court system. Of her past, the teen, now on a different path, said, “I refuse to let that define me,” to which she was greeted with supportive applause. The Russell County juvenile court judge, Zack Collins, whom she had to appear before, also came up and said he was “so, so, so proud” of her and how far she has come.
During brief remarks, as he has in the past, Collins reminded the students – both male and female – of how easily a sexual offense such as touching someone inappropriately on his/her buttocks “flirtatiously” can land a person on a registered sex offender’s list – even as a juvenile – and how that rap follows the offender for life. “‘No’ means ‘no,’” he said. “There is no ‘maybe’: if someone doesn’t want to be touched, they don’t want to be touched. ‘NO’ means ‘NO.’”
There also was information from law enforcement. A Russell County Sheriff’s deputy informed students that the most prevalent drug problem in the county right now isn’t meth, marijuana or heroin: it’s actually the abuse of prescription medication.
During the summit, there was a question and answer time with the panel. No questions were censored, including an anonymous one about whether “virgins” can contract Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs). As students broke into a laughing murmur, Walton brought them back to order, saying, “Y’all are laughing,” but now is the time to get your questions answered by the professionals on the panel.
“Yes,” it’s possible, was the Public Health Department’s representative’s answer. She educated the teens how a particular type of sexual behavior and even fondling can transmit STDs to “a virgin.”
Walton expounded on that subject to drive home the point to students that for every person they have sexual contact with, the risk of contracting STDs increases exponentially when one considers how many sexual partners their partners have had.
She showed the students how a teen who’s “a virgin” can get an STD from having had sexual contact with their boyfriend/girlfriend. The boyfriend/girlfriend’s “a player,” (unfaithful) she said, unbeknownst to the “virgin” teen. Then she showed an imaginary chain of how the boyfriend’s/girlfriend’s partner on the side and that person’s partner on the side and so on creates a chain of people from which the STD ultimately came from.
The teens were also educated about what numbers they can call to get tested for STDs, the minimum ages at which students can go to a health department and get tested without a parent present, and hotlines they can call for help with drug abuse and suicide. They were encouraged primarily to abstain from sex, but also reminded about condoms; and they also were educated that there’s a high STD rate in Russell County – particularly of chlamydia and trichomoniasis. The representative noted, as an example, that five of nine people who recently came in for testing ended up having STDs they were not aware of. That’s a high rate, the Health Department representative told the audience.
Further, students were educated about vaccines for meningitis, which most colleges now recommend, and also HPV (Human Papilloma Virus, a common STD), which both male and female teens can get that can protect females from getting cervical cancer caused by HPV.
The teens also heard an audio recording of a teen talking about mental health and its impact on the risk of suicide and how to find help.
Students also had the chance to participate in a voluntary, anonymous survey about marijuana that sought to understand students’ opinions about the drug: such as whether the students had used it, whether they thought it can negatively affect their bodies, whether they think it should be legalized in Alabama, and whether they think the drug stays in the body for 30 days.