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Chew on This

Picture This: Visiting speaker enters high school class after high school class to teach teens about how sexually transmitted diseases are spread. To illustrate the point, speaker then asks the students to take turns chewing on the SAME piece of gum. Said piece of gum passes from mouth to mouth.

Too disgusting to imagine? This is precisely what happened in Montgomery County schools in December and January by a speaker from Rockville Pregnancy Center, a pregnancy counseling center with a religious orientation.

"This basically is an unacceptable and unsanitary practice. It should never occur," Judith Covich, director of school health services at the county health department, told reporter Daniel de Vise. "The risk is about the same as sharing a glass, sharing the same straw." The practice carried a low risk of spreading the cold or flu, she said.

Hmmm. Try telling any parent who has stayed home with sick kids that the risk of spreading viruses or bacteria by sharing saliva is low.

Clearly, this was an unsanitary way to teach a lesson -- but I bet it made some kids think twice. Does anyone have ideas for a safer, more effective way to teach kids about the dangers of STDs?

On a different note, my colleague Annys Shin is looking for parents who have let their little ones watch Baby First TV or its competitor Baby TV. If you have and are willing to share your thoughts about the stations, please e-mail her at

By Stacey Garfinkle |  February 12, 2007; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Teens
Previous: The Debate: The Internet and Kids | Next: Wheels on Heels


Gross, for sure. And, not sure I'd want my kid passing around/taking gum from other kids. But, an effective visual.

Posted by: JS | February 12, 2007 8:02 AM | Report abuse

As gross as the gum thing is, I'd find it much more repulsive that the people teaching my kids about STDs (or anything sex-related for that matter) were from a religious center. Especially when it looks like the place is a crisis pregnancy center, which are generally known for feeding women false and misleading information.

Posted by: NewSAHM | February 12, 2007 8:08 AM | Report abuse

"Does anyone have ideas for a safer, more effective way
to teach kids about the dangers of STDs?"

The students should be presented with actual photographs of leasions, sores, and warts on both male and female genitalia as well as the specific STD that caused the condition. Test on Friday!

Posted by: Father of 4 | February 12, 2007 8:43 AM | Report abuse

Did any of the teens say "No, I will not chew your nasty gum"? Because they need to learn how to say "No, I will not have sex with you."

I realize that there is a difference -- this is a school setting and this instructor was supposed to be a respected adult. But I wonder how much pressure and autority was exerted over these students to get them to chew the gum.

Posted by: Arington Dad | February 12, 2007 9:23 AM | Report abuse

I agree with Father of 4, in college there was a sex ed seminar that freshmen had to go to focused on the risks of sex, such as STDs. They showed us pictures of genital warts, herpes, etc. Even at 18 it had an impact, definitely effective. Also, the woman giving the talk, a registered nurse, was very open and honest and didn't pretend that some people in the room weren't already sexually active. Sometimes the truth, no matter how blunt and uncomfortable, is the best way to get the attention you need.

Posted by: JJ | February 12, 2007 9:28 AM | Report abuse

Photos, photos, photos shown more than once in school. I remember my seventh grade anti-dip class (SoCal, where there was a large population of boys playing baseball). The pictures of those young guys with no jaws or tongues was awful. I bet few in my class ever dipped after that.

Last night my friend, a teacher, told me about the biology teacher at her school. The kids are hungry for information about sex and many of them tell her (the biology teacher) that their parents won't talk about it with them. She usually extends that chapter because they have so many good thought out questions. Also, she said it can be disturbing how little they know despite the fact that many of them are already sexually active (9th grade).

Posted by: running | February 12, 2007 9:47 AM | Report abuse

Stupid, but not morally offensive.

They could have had them babysit eggs or given out Baby Think It Overs, and taught them that a baby is a punishment for girls who have sex.

I'd be more peeved about that.

Posted by: di | February 12, 2007 9:56 AM | Report abuse

This is related to kids and STDs. There is an article in todays paper about MD considering the HPV vaccine for girls. Am I the only one who wonders why the vaccine isn't being proposed for boys as well? Wouldn't that provide more protection? Then the boys couldn't give the virus to the girls, which is how this works. Especially since the vaccine isn't 100% effective defense, if they are going to require it, I think it needs to be required for everyone to really limit the occurrence of cancer in these girls. What does this teach our kids about sex and STD's? This is another example of shifting the responsibility for sex onto women-- Men do what you want, boys will be boys, women try to protect yourselves.

Posted by: Slightly off topic | February 12, 2007 10:31 AM | Report abuse

Re: Arington Dad... Good call, Dad. Did a single student in the entire room actually GET THE POINT and REFUSE to partake of afformentioned metaphorical stds? If so, I support the whole thing. Its not clean, but neither is unprotected sex... so I suppose whatever drives home the point. And as someone who works for sexual education group I can safely say if all these children catch is a cold because at least someone was allowed to educate them, then boo hoo.

Posted by: Kate | February 12, 2007 10:39 AM | Report abuse

To slightly off topic, they haven't done the clinical trials of the HPV vaccine in boys yet. From what I understand they plan to, and then it will be available for boys, too. It would be silly from both a public health standpoint and a financial standpoint on the part of the manufacturer not to offer it for boys.

Posted by: mommabean | February 12, 2007 10:48 AM | Report abuse

"and then it will be available for boys, too"

Well, only if it does something for boys.

What about vaccinating boys?
We do not yet know if the vaccine is effective in boys or men. It is possible that vaccinating males will have health benefits for them by preventing genital warts and rare cancers, such as penile and anal cancer. It is also possible that vaccinating boys/men will have indirect health benefits for girls/women. Studies are now being done to find out if the vaccine works to prevent HPV infection and disease in males. When more information is available, this vaccine may be licensed and recommended for boys/men as well.

Posted by: To mommabean | February 12, 2007 10:52 AM | Report abuse

I took many classes related to STD's and AIDS as a healthcare professional student in the 90's. Pictures are effective, working a day in the local STD clinic and actually having to administer the tests was also VERY effective. One thing a professor said to me that I have taught my teenage daughter is that condoms have a 90% effaciacy for prevention of pregnancy. For comparison the human sperm is the size of your forearm, the HIV virus is the size of the nail on your smallest finger what kind of effaciacy does the condom have for something of that size?

I think everyone needs to talk to their kids, about sex, STD's, HIV, everything. Try to be honest and forthright and answer their questions because you want those answers to come from you. Last weeks discussion about the computer in the home reminded me of an incident with my 12 year old son. I found him looking at on our family computer. It led to a great discussion about the realism of those sights, the fact those women are fairly plastic and that both sexes need to be respected for themselves not their looks. He was very receptive to that, and I am glad it happened before puberty has kicked in full swing and his hormones are raging.

The HPV vaccine seems strange in some ways to me. They seem to be pushing it so hard on everyone before they may know everything that they need to know. That scares me when it comes to my kids and their health. Having said that I worry about my daughters because even if they have no sexual contact before marriage a male who has had previous sexual realationships can bring it into the relationship/marriage and give it to her--that scares me too. What is a mom to do?

Posted by: magnificent7mom | February 12, 2007 11:46 AM | Report abuse

Would it be less effective to ask a rhetorical question like "Would you like it if I took chewing gum out of my mouth and put it in yours? Would you then take it out of yours and share the same stick with a friend?" I suspect most people would find the concept gross, and it's still a dramatic image without actually having to chew someone else's gum.

Posted by: Kate | February 12, 2007 11:53 AM | Report abuse

A classic case of shooting the messenger - what does the fact that this is a religious center teaching kids about STDs have to do with the lesson. Either STDs are transmitted by unprotected sex or not - and as far I know that message is not altered by so called "religious centers"!

Posted by: Ana | February 12, 2007 12:00 PM | Report abuse

Did any of the teens say "No, I will not chew your nasty gum"? Because they need to learn how to say "No, I will not have sex with you."


I would have. I said "No" in much more innocent situation, when a nurse was trying to use me as a model showing how to apply pressure to stop arterial bleeding. I was 15 and just did not want her to touch me that way. She stormed to the principal's office; unexpectedly for her he took my side. I was offered a transfer from the girls "first aid" class to the boys "run with a machine gun and blow the things up" class, which I enjoyed. Now my 8 y.o son doesn't have any problems saying "No" to unreasonable requests either.


Posted by: Never | February 12, 2007 12:00 PM | Report abuse

Give the students sheets of stickers. Every thing, every person they touch (hug, slap on the back) gets "tagged" with a sticker. If they touch the water fountain and it is "tagged" they have to tag themselves. Use the toilet? Tagged. At the end of the day they can see visually the number and diversity of germs, viruses, and bacteria they come in contact with everyday. Now to really drive the point home, give one student a special colored sticker. That color represents an STD. By the end of the day, see how many times that color appears on and around the school and students. Don't tell them before hand what the stickers or colors mean, just tell them to tag anything they touch. At the end of the day, select a proportion of students who will have A) died from HIV, B) died from cervical cancer caused by HPV, C) dropped out of school due to teen preganacy, and D) suffer tong term health effects from STDs. Select them based on the colored "tags" each has. Group them up in the school auditorium. Tell them and the remaining students that because of ignorance, stupidity, or any combination of the two, the students in front are dead or ill and they are dead or ill because of the diseases shown by the "tags" each student displays.

Posted by: LM in WI | February 12, 2007 12:10 PM | Report abuse

"Does anyone have ideas for a safer, more effective way to teach kids about the dangers of STDs?"

Just be honest with them and tell them. No sugar coating, no impact reduction. Just be upfront and let them know what happens.

Posted by: Mike | February 12, 2007 12:48 PM | Report abuse

We had a similar sticker game in just one classroom, and it was very enlightening for most. Also, the pictures had great shock value.

Posted by: Chris | February 12, 2007 12:54 PM | Report abuse

Also a great opportunity to teach the kids to "just say no". Double lesson to be learned.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 12, 2007 1:13 PM | Report abuse

I think it's a great idea to make them think about- but no reason to make them ACTUALLY share the gum.

And I also agree- we need a lot more teaching about being comfortable saying no and teaching responsible relationship skills than just the facts.

Posted by: Liz D | February 12, 2007 1:54 PM | Report abuse

Um, you don't get sexually transmitted diseases from touching people or things so I think the sticker idea is misleading and even the most sexually uneducated highschooler will realize that.

Posted by: Momof3 | February 12, 2007 2:01 PM | Report abuse

I think an outside speaker who isn't a certified health teacher has no business "educating" children in any manner.

As for the gum, the person who thought of it, frankly is an idiot.

I spent two months out sick during my freshman year of high school because of mononucleosis. I had problems with my liver due to the disease, and we all know that it is spread via saliva.

Also, I'm disappointed that the students did not rebel and call the visitor on the carpet.

Would you share gum at a business meeting?

Even if an outside speaker talked you into it?

Posted by: Kate | February 12, 2007 2:06 PM | Report abuse

I think an outside speaker who isn't a certified health teacher has no business "educating" children in any manner.

As for the gum, the person who thought of it, frankly is an idiot.

I spent two months out sick during my freshman year of high school because of mononucleosis. I had problems with my liver due to the disease, and we all know that it is spread via saliva.

Also, I'm disappointed that the students did not rebel and call the visitor on the carpet.

Would you share gum at a business meeting?

Even if an outside speaker talked you into it?

Posted by: Kate | February 12, 2007 2:09 PM | Report abuse

Of course STDS aren't spread through casaul contact. The idea of the stickers is to demonstrate how rapidly and widespread infection can become. Young kids like to think that "it just isn't going to happen to me" partly because they don't realize how just one person can infect countless others.

Posted by: LM in WI | February 12, 2007 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Team up the students in pairs, boy+girl. Give them a Baby Think it Over doll to babysit for a designated period of time. Have them work up a budget that covers rent, food, medical expenses, car expenses, clothes, utilities, all the things that have to be paid. See if they can live on that budget based on how much they get in allowance and any part-time jobs. Include child support payments in case they split up. Make them see how difficult living in the real world is. That 'Baby Think it Over' is a really excellent motivator since it is programmed to behave like a real baby. That ought to teach high schoolers to keep their pants on and behave themselves.

I also like the idea of showing them gross pictures of lesions, syph, warts and all. Maybe make them watch an autopsy of a drug addict for good measure.

Posted by: Just lurkin' today | February 12, 2007 3:11 PM | Report abuse

Although the article did not go into it, a religious-based health education program is more that likely using shock value to scare the kids and focusing on abstinance as the only option. Was there any dicussion of protection? You could do the same thing but put the gum in a new baggie between people. Totally new lesson. And clean.

And to back up Kate - Hodgkin's lymphoma is also correlated with mono-exposure. not a proven cause or anything, but yeah. Its not just colds.

Posted by: To Ana | February 12, 2007 3:46 PM | Report abuse

For anyone who's interested, the pregnancy center is an evangelical, anti-abortion clinic who's been speaking in Mongtgomery County Schools. Please google the Rockville Pregnancy Center and read about their goals and values. It's simply shocking that they were allowed into the public schools and did not explicitly tell students that they are faith-based.

Posted by: bethesda | February 12, 2007 3:59 PM | Report abuse

"The practice carried a low risk of spreading the cold or flu," Yes, and it also carried a low risk of spreading hepatitis. Lovely. There is no way those children should have ever shared gum, and as someone who teaches the dangers of infectious diseases, the speaker should have known better.

Posted by: Contrary Mary | February 12, 2007 4:25 PM | Report abuse

I think pictures of oozing, blistered, and disfigured genitalia caused by STDs is the best sex ed I ever got. I wanted no part of any of it! We were also warned that if we caught a few loathsome diseases without cures, we would always have to tell people we date we had them and would be ostracized.

The other best sex ed lesson I had was a video of childbirth shown to my sixth grade class. Boys and girls alike were so completely horrified at the act of child birth that we reverted to the elementary school "(members the opposite sex) have cooties" mentality.

Posted by: lawgirl | February 12, 2007 4:29 PM | Report abuse

The problem with the classes being taught by religion-based centers is that these kinds of places are notorious for giving out false and misleading information to those people who are most vulnerable.

For instance, Rockville Pregnany Center's site links to information about a supposed link between breast cancer and abortion. There is absolutely no proof of such a link except for one study that has, if I recall correctly, since been discredited. Other similar centers have told women that the morning-after pill causes abortions, which is also untrue.

These are not the kind of people I'd want giving my children information about STDs or, for that matter, anything having to do with sex. It would be like having a radical vegan teach a class on grilling the perfect steak.

Posted by: NewSAHM | February 12, 2007 5:07 PM | Report abuse

Using the chewed gum as a metaphor tells young people that people who have sex are like something we throw in the garbage or scrape off the bottoms of our shoes. Given that 95% of Americans have sex before marriage, most with more than one person, I find that image objectionable and inappropriate.

People can and do have happy, active sex lives without getting diseases or unwanted children -- but not if all their sex ed comes from programs like this one.

Posted by: tigercrane | February 12, 2007 6:06 PM | Report abuse

lawagirl, I agree with you on strong pictures working. Back in the day (say 1975?), hustler magazine had a whole issue on STD effects. That magazine made the rounds all over high school. It was one of the most strongest pieces of sex ed. I still remember some of those pictures.

Posted by: dotted | February 12, 2007 6:46 PM | Report abuse

Great idea. The kids didn't just say "no, that's gross"...probably did. THAT would have taught more then any stupid pictures. They've seen much worse in movies and video games.

Posted by: Rich | February 13, 2007 10:13 AM | Report abuse

Baby Think It Over teaches you to avoid having a baby, not necessarily to avoid sex.

Go ahead, tell kids over and over again that if they get pregnant their lives will be unending misery...then wonder why there's such a high abortion rate.

Posted by: di | February 13, 2007 6:30 PM | Report abuse

Definitely,the method of teaching was gross (were there already some kids having an STD in that group?).
Furthermore, high school is too late to teach about such things. We need to start them young. My oldest is only 7 and I have already told him not to share lunch box, or an ice-cream cone with anybody, nor take a bite from anybody's food, even if they are your best friends. This is important because we can teach them to be safe and keep others safe as well.

Posted by: sugandha | February 16, 2007 8:53 AM | Report abuse

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