Middle school students learn about healthy relationships during syphilis study apology commemoration


TUSKEGEE, Alabama (April 30, 2012) — Tuskegee University kicked off the 15th anniversary of former President Bill Clinton’s apology for the infamous “Syphilis Study” by reaching out to community youth. On Thursday, April 26, about 75 students from Tuskegee Public School and Tuskegee Institute Middle School in Tuskegee and DC Wolfe Middle School in Shorter, Ala., gathered at the Tuskegee University National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care to learn about making healthy relationship and sex decisions.

The Bioethics Center marks Clinton’s 1997 apology each year on behalf of the nation for the United States Public Health Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male in Macon County, Alabama. From 1932-1972, black men in the study were denied adequate treatment for syphilis and their health as well as that of their families suffered for decades. The center, which opened in 2006, continues to build upon the rich history and commitment of Tuskegee University to seek improvements in the health and health care of people living in underrepresented areas.

During a teaching exercise, Macon County students
in the background hold cards representing various
stages of a relationship as Christian Thrasher
speaks to the audience during a healthy relationship
forum. During the exercise, students divided into
two teams decided on the correct order that
relationship milestones should happen.
Genece Blackmon, the Bioethics Center’s interim associate director for community engagement, opened the session by explaining to the students the importance of the forum and introducing sexuality educators Christian Thrasher and Sharon Rachel from the Center of Excellence for Sexual Health at the Morehouse School of Medicine.

“This is our first time having a sexual health forum,” Blackmon told the students in the center’s John A. Kenney Auditorium. “We want to make sure that we start a conversation about the negative outcomes that we have been having in the area of sexual health, and we want to start that conversation with you.”

According to 2009 Alabama Department of Public Health statistics, 8,365 babies were born to teen mothers in the state, and Macon County accounted for 18.6 percent of those births.

Not taught in school

In clear and frank language, Thrasher explained that the only way to completely prevent teenage pregnancy was abstinence. He also told the group that there was more to sexuality and relationships than having sex. He encouraged the students to find a trusted adult in their lives that they can ask relationship or sex questions and get correct answers.

“When I went to school, they taught me about social studies and math… No one ever taught me about how to have a healthy relationship,” he explained. “But, it’s this thing that you assume that everyone is going to do.”

Thrasher went on to share with the young audience the characteristics of a good or bad potential mate. He listed respectfulness, sense of responsibility and good listening skills among the positive traits for the students to look for in their partners. Among the bad traits were: drug use, verbal or physical abuse, and large age gaps.

“Trust your gut,” he said. “If it doesn’t feel right, it probably is not right.”

Serious game

During a fast-paced and oftentimes boisterous competition, students divided into two teams decided on the correct order that relationship milestones should happen. Printed on large yellow and blue cards, the choices included: flirting, trusting, sexting, getting a sexual history, talking about birth control and getting married. Thrasher said the exercise was meant for the students to teach him about how they think a relationship should develop.

“You’re responsible for making your own good decisions,” Thrasher said.

Kevin Hughes, 12, a student at Tuskegee Public School was among the pre-teens on the blue card team jostling for a place during the relationship game. He said he thought the forum was a positive thing and taught him useful information.

“I learned that you are supposed to talk about birth control before you have sex,” he said.

Thrasher said the exercise is a good way to start an honest conversation with pre-teens. It also shows young people the many layers of relationships so they are empowered to establish their own boundaries.

“The reality of this is simple; it’s up to you guys to continue this conversation,” Thrasher said. “It’s up to you guys to make a decision.”


Alabama Department of Public Health 2009 teen pregnancy report: http://adph.org/healthstats/assets/avs09tbl18.pdf 

Sexuality educator Christian Thrasher speaks with a student during a healthy relationships forum held at Tuskegee University on April 26. Macon County pre-teens were invited to the event as part of the university's commemoration of the 15th anniversary of former President Bill Clinton’s apology for the "Syphilis Study."

Sexuality educator Christian Thrasher from the Center of Excellence for Sexual Health at the Morehouse School of Medicine questions a student during a forum on healthy relationships held at Tuskegee University.

© 2012 Tuskegee University

Back to News Listing