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Effort to Reduce Teen Pregnancies in Milwaukee: Peer-to-Peer Condom Distribution

Ann-Elise Henzl
Teenage workers for the 414ALL program grab handfuls of condoms every two weeks to pass out to peers.

Many teenagers in Milwaukee are sexually active. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 52 percent of high schoolers in Milwaukee have had intercourse at least once. The national average is 47 percent. 

A program in Milwaukee is urging teens to adopt safe sex practices in case adults have not raised the subject. A big component of the program is hiring young people to pass out condoms to friends and strangers.

Every couple weeks, teens gather at the office of Diverse & Resilient in Milwaukee's Riverwest neighborhood. They're Community Health Promoters for the 414ALL program, which promotes safe sex as a means of preventing unwanted pregnancies and sexually-transmitted diseases.

At the end of each meeting, the teens grab five-packs of condoms along with information about STDs. Over the next couple of weeks, they'll pass them out to peers who might be too embarrassed -- or broke -- to buy them. They hand out the condoms at school, in their neighborhoods and at places like Boys & Girls Clubs.

A community effort to prevent teen pregnancy pays for the items. Its many funders include the United Way, Johnson Controls and Aurora Health Care.

To let people know they have condoms, the workers sometimes wear hoodies or carry tote bags bearing the 414ALL logo. Or, word just gets around.

Credit Ann-Elise Henzl
A teen Community Health Promoter for 414ALL stuffs five-packs of condoms into his pockets

A 17-year-old who attends MPS' Riverside University High School says it’s important to talk with teens about safe sex, because adults may avoid the subject.

"They think that you're too young to know about this type of information, but us growing up, we have to know about this, because the average teens our age don't know, and they're getting themselves into situations that they don't want to," he says.

Adults have mixed reactions to the program. For example, the local Boys & Girls Clubs says it understands, if teens wish to pass out condoms to peers. Meanwhile, MPS says high schoolers cannot distribute condoms on campus. Linda Williams is student health services coordinator. The district's policy is to encourage abstinence. Yet Williams says because many teens are sexually active, the school nurse's office stocks condoms. They're available to high schoolers upon request.

"If they ask the nurse for a condom, the nurse will provide education surrounding the condoms, any risk behaviors. Some kids don't even know how to use a condom, and the nurse will instruct them as to how to use the condoms," Williams says.

The 414ALL program is trying to get schools to welcome peer-to-peer condom distribution. So is the Medical College of Wisconsin. It recently awarded a grant to 414ALL, so it can develop protocols schools could adopt.

The group likely will face challenges. For instance, MPS says it's comfortable with its current policy, of having medical professionals talk with teens about sex. And some organizations oppose any condoms in schools. Pro-Life Wisconsin has argued that handing out condoms in schools can encourage sexual activity.

Ann-Elise Henzl became News Director in September 2017.