Kaiser Permanente spent months working to bring to Kern County a special production of “What Goes Around,” a play that teaches kids about the risks of sexually transmitted diseases that 10,000 students at schools across Southern California see each year.
It’s a curriculum that health practitioners say communicates the dangers of STDs in a hip, casual way that gets to the point with teens – and Kaiser offers it to school districts for free.
Although about 50 invited VIPs attended the special showing of the educational play at Cal State Bakersfield’s Dore Theatre Wednesday, just a handful of those people were truly Kaiser's targeted audience: Kern High School District board trustees and administrators, the people who could actually bring the program to the KHSD's 37,000 students.
“Today is about letting the board see how we can appeal to teens in a non-threatening way to make wise decisions,” David Womack, Senior Vice President and Area Manager for Kaiser Permanente Kern County, said before the showing.
Critics say district officials have been slow to react to rising STD rates throughout the region, especially among teens, a situation Kern County Public Health officials have called a crisis.
Roughly 6,658 15- to 19-year-olds living within the district’s boundaries contracted one or more STDs between 2011 and 2015, according to public health records. They contribute to some of the highest STD rates statewide.
Although Womack said the majority of KHSD board members RSVP’d, just one trustee, Jeff Flores, showed up. Four other administrators attended; Ryan Geivet, KHSD’s director of instruction, Michelle Blalock, a coordinator at the district, and two principals.
“There’s been some reluctance to address the issue of STDs and that's a real crisis here in Kern County, and it’s pretty much the No. 1 issue facing the health of our youth here,” Womack said.
He was referring to the reaction trustees had in December, when Kern County Public Health officials presented the KHSD board with powerful statistics about the number of STDs among teens living within district boundaries and asked for their help changing the situation.
“We need to change things and change the dynamics. We need to do something different. We need help,” Public Health Director Matt Constantine said Thursday.
Trustees haven’t committed to providing anything more than the minimum state standards required for sex education. Over the last three years, an HIV/AIDS prevention program KHSD ran that gained national recognition was reorganized under new leadership and changes were made to the program. One was the elimination of a requirement that students receive a sex ed refresher course two years after their freshmen health program ends.
But on Wednesday, Geivert said he and Blalock were scouting the program with the intent of potentially ushering it into KHSD’s schools for a junior year refresher as early as next fall.
He wouldn’t say definitively whether the district would commit to the program.
“We have to work through the logistics,” Geivert said, explaining the difficulty of finding a venue to accommodate the district’s roughly 10,000 juniors and how the district would transport them there.
Despite that, Geivert and Blalock gave the show high praise after the curtain dropped.
The production portrays Eli, a graduation-bound high school senior who has sex with two girls: his girlfriend, Alicia, and another girl he cheated on her with at a party.
He contracted chlamydia from the second, but didn’t tell his girlfriend, Alicia. She found out later from another friend that she should get tested, then later dumped Eli, even after he begged her to stay.
Ray Auxais, the actor portraying Eli, later admitted that his character is a jerk, but he’s also a confused teenage boy.
Throughout the play, characters run into misconceptions about sexually transmitted diseases, including that “pulling-out” and birth control pills are effective shields against them. The only surefire strategy against contracting an STD is abstinence, the actors say throughout the show. But if teens do have sex, they should be using condoms and water-based lubricant.
Later, during a character’s dream sequence that doubles as a choreographed dance scene, actors show students how to use a condom on an inflatable, oversized, novelty banana complete with a dancing K-Y Jelly bottle.
KHSD Trustee Flores called it “innovative, creative” and something he would try to introduce to the district’s current sex ed offerings.
“Anywhere we can augment, given the statistics facing our students, I’d welcome, as long as we honor parents' rights and students' rights,” Flores said. “This interactive format of theater, the creativity done by professionals, could help us with suppressing some of the bad rates of STDs in our student population.”