“I want to be educated, not punished”
--Quote from a high school student who came forward for having sex on campus
I am a public health professional with expertise in adolescent sexual and reproductive health. From a public health standpoint, there is no problem or harm when people have consensual sex and use methods to protect themselves from STIs and pregnancy. I live and volunteer at a boarding high school where having sex on campus is not allowed. In the past, students who were caught having sex would be suspended or expelled. Over the past 10 years, the school increasingly practices restorative justice, but has struggled to figure out how to apply this to sex.
Teenagers will always find ways to have sex, whether it is “allowed” or not, so I believe we have a responsibility to help educate them with information and link them to services that enable them to make healthy choices. Harms from sex include getting STIs, becoming pregnant, unconsensual sex, and having sex around others who have past trauma or have never done anything sexual. So how do we respond to these harms in a restorative way? What if the sex was consensual and safe?
In order to be proactive, all students must complete a class on human sexuality in order to graduate. This course gives students information on safe sex, healthy relationships, sexual consent, power dynamics, among other things, and seeks to enable students to make healthy sexual choices. We also provide condoms for students who “choose to break the rule” as a harm reduction measure. (There is no evidence that providing condoms on high school or college campuses encourages students to have sex; rather, data show that students who are already having sex are more likely to use condoms when they are available on campus). In addition, we ensure that both staff and students know students can access confidential sexual health services from the on-campus nurse.
Acknowledging that students are having a variety of safe or unsafe sexual encounters, we have developedone-on-one andgroup meeting outlines to go over with students who come forward or are caught having sex on campus as part of a restorative justice approach. The objective of these meetings is to assess where students are at in terms of their knowledge around safe sex, consent and healthy relationships, then to go over key concepts with them about these topics. One of our key messages is that if students have sex in shared dorms, this could be triggering. Students who have taken part in these meetings have expressed their appreciation of being given the space to ask questions and learn in a comfortable setting. Students who are part of the restorative justice process for having sex also sometimes do community events to educate other students about safe sex and healthy relationships. We aim to remove shame and punishment and replace it with education.
We have not been able to find clear written procedures about what other similar boarding high schools do when students have sex. It is an issue that it seems no one wants to touch, but it is critical for the healthy development of adolescents while they are at school, at home or in the future.
While I feel like we have made progress, we definitely have more work to do. I would love to hear what others in similar settings think about our approach and if they have experiences or lessons they could share.