A group of Schenectady seventh grade boys dug into a pile of Lego blocks during a lesson earlier this week. Each block was labeled with a different relationship trait.
Respect. Loyalty. Consent. Faith. Protect. Self-respect. Boundaries. Honesty.
“Put the most important word on top,” a Planned Parenthood educator instructed the boys as part of a session at the Schenectady’s Boys Day Out Conference at the Glen Sanders Mansion in Scotia on Tuesday.
The session focused on healthy relationships, inculcating the boys with lessons just as they start out in the dating game. The lesson, which has also been a part of the Girls Day Out Conference in recent years, comes amid increased attention to sexual assault — the importance of healthy relationships laid bare by daily news reports.
“I’m done,” Central Park Middle School seventh-grader Jovan Mirabal said of his Lego contraption. “I say respect.”
“Oh, you put respect on top?” asked Shamaree Zane, who helps run education programs as part of Planned Parenthood’s Teens Helping Teens program. “That’s good.”
“Respect and loyalty,” Jovan said.
Other students topped their Lego structures with blocks labeled “honesty” and “knowledge” and “self-respect.”
The program coordinators then asked the boys to remove a trait-covered block from the middle of their structure. Across the room, Legos crumbled to the table as the structures fell apart.
“When we take those out and we don’t have all of them, we don’t have a healthy relationship,” said Travis Samborin, an education specialist with Planned Parenthood’s victims advocacy team. “We all need these pieces to the puzzle to have a healthy relationship.”
The next day in the same room, a group of seventh-grade girls participated in a similar program. Like the boys, they labeled harmful relationship traits and listed the characteristics of a healthy partnership, working with a team of female educators.
“If you are dating someone and you are talking to someone else, and they get mad at you, they jump to conclusions,” Oneida Middle School seventh-grader Rayna Walker said, highlighting a negative trait in a partner or friend.
The training, which reached dozens of seventh-graders during the two conference days, is part of an ongoing partnership between the Schenectady City School District and the local Planned Parenthood organization. Planned Parenthood educators hold regular office hours at the high school and also assist in district health classes as part of curriculums approved by the state Department of Health. They also help organize assemblies that target teenage pregnancy prevention and other education programs.
Planned Parenthood staff reach an estimated 350 students in health classes and 600 students in the school office throughout the year, said Emma Corbett, a local Planned Parenthood spokeswoman.
Schools Superintendent Larry Spring cited a steady decline in Schenectady County’s teen pregnancy rates — still among the highest in the state — as evidence that the district’s efforts with Planned Parenthood are paying off. From 2012 to 2015, the rate of teen pregnancies in Schenectady County slid from 59.7 to 42 per 1,000 females ages 15 to 19, according to the state’s vital statistics.
Corbett said a wave of high-profile sexual assault and harassment cases and allegations have drawn increased attention and interest in education programs offered by Planned Parenthood.
“Anyone in a relationship can experience abuse, it doesn’t matter how old you are,” Zane told the group of seventh-grade boys.
The messages at both the boys and girls trainings covered similar terrain. But the girls didn’t play with Legos. Instead they wrote notes to themselves about the kinds of traits they want in a future partner.
Hemavattie Ramtahal, a 2009 Schenectady High graduate who led the event for girls, told them she would mail the letter to them in the next year or two.
“Think about what you want in your heart in any type of relationship,” she told the girls.
“A daymaker,” one of the girls said.
“What’s that?” Ramtahal asked.
“Someone who makes your day.”
Ramtahal was joined by a pair of Schenectady High School seniors, part of Planned Parenthood’s Teens Helping Teens program, which trains teens as early as freshman year of high school in healthy sex and relationship programs.
The high-schoolers said that for some seventh-graders, dating and relationships are starting to become all-consuming efforts. They said the most important things for the middle school girls to learn was to “pay attention to relationships” and “not settle” and “talk about stuff” and expect a partner who shows them respect and trust.
“I wish someone had followed me around and told me that every day,” senior Ariante Carter said of her middle schools day.