High school sexuality teacher and guest speaker Al Vernacchio spoke to students in the Healthy Relationships Assembly on Monday, Oct. 17. The assembly occurred in the Alan Harvey Theater in two sessions during fourth period.
Vernacchio is a high school English and human sexuality teacher at Friends’ Central School, a Quaker School in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. He said that he has been a sexuality educator for 20 years.
Vernacchio presented his speech, “Pizza is the Key to Healthy Sexuality,” for the majority of the assembly.
His goal was to provide information to aid teenagers in making decisions about healthy sexuality and healthy relationships, Vernacchio said.
“Sex is a consensual activity that offers sexual pleasure, mutuality, connection and/or possible reproduction for those involved,” Vernacchio said.
Sexuality and sex should be taught to be fun, positive, pleasurable and should not be taught to induce fear in students, Vernacchio said.
“Sexuality is a force for good,” Vernacchio said.
Vernacchio said he believes that for the individuals involved, sexuality includes their whole bodies, their own gender identities, their sexual and romantic orientations and their sexual behavior.
Junior Genevieve Raushenbush said that she appreciated Vernacchio’s ideas about being honest with one’s sexuality.
“There is no shame in sex or sexual relations, you just have to be honest with yourself,” Raushenbush said.
The ‘Pizza Model’ is Vernacchio’s alternative approach to the traditional ‘Baseball Model’ when referring to sexual activities. Eating pizza is an non-competitive act without set rules for execution, Vernacchio said.
“People can have pizza when they want pizza,” Vernacchio said. “It is their choice and is a collaborative enterprise where those involved can talk about what they like and what they want.”
Because “The Pizza Model” is not rigid in its rules about what roles people play, it is orientation inclusive and allows anyone to participate, Vernacchio said.
“I really liked how open [Vernacchio] was to all walks of people,” Raushenbush said.
Before making sexual decisions, Vernacchio said that individuals need to know their values, and be aware if consent is given.
“If you can’t look someone in the eye and talk about it, then you aren’t ready to do it with them,” Vernacchio said.
People are unable to consensually take part in sexual activities having consumed alcohol, since it hinders their ability to make definite decisions, Vernacchio said.
Vernacchio said that he does not want to force his ideas onto students, and wants students to make their own decisions about their sexuality.
“I want students to consider my ideas, and make their own choices about who they want to be, and how they want to make their community,” Vernacchio said.
Freshman Josh Eidam said that he will consider what he learned from Vernacchio when he is making decisions in the future.
Eidam said he liked Vernacchio’s balance between professionalism and humor in the assembly, which made the topics less awkward.
“I liked how he was talking about a serious subject, but still made it funny,” Eidam said. “I thought he was very professional and very articulate.”
Freshman Julia Pappas said that she appreciated Vernacchio’s insight.
“[Vernacchio] never had a point that he was unsure about,” Pappas said. “He had a lot of knowledge about the topic.”
After the assembly, Vernacchio answered questions created by Peer Advisors in a lunchtime meeting that students could attend.
Vernacchio also gave a talk for parents on Oct. 16 at 7 pm, and 150 parents attended.
Vernacchio said that he decided to work as a human sexuality educator because when he was a child, he was not educated about sex or about how to establish healthy relationships.
“I want students to feel comfortable, and it is important to reach them to help young people have more conversations about [their sexuality],” Vernacchio said.
Social psychology teacher Anne Aldridge-Peacock said that she hopes Vernacchio’s information will start conversations between students and their parents, because adults are often scared to talk about sexuality with their kids, in fear of sending the wrong message or saying the wrong thing.
“[Vernacchio] discussed big topics that often times aren’t part of the conversation, especially when talking with teenagers,” Aldridge-Peacock said.
This was the first year of an assembly specifically dedicated to healthy relationships for students.
Aldridge-Peacock said that she originally found Vernacchio through a New York Times article that he wrote, titled “Teaching Good Sex,” which is about the idea of healthy sexuality.
“I really liked his philosophy and his approach, and the idea that healthy relationships are an extension of our values and decisions that are reflected in other parts of our lives as well,” Aldridge-Peacock said.
The idea for the assembly was brought forth by the Piedmont Parents Network (PPN), who agreed to sponsor bringing Vernacchio to speak with students and parents. Aldridge-Peacock said she wanted to have an assembly regarding healthy relationships prior to the consent assembly.
“We could start the conversation by talking about what a healthy relationship looks like before exposing students, especially freshman, to the realities of sexual assault,” Aldridge-Peacock said.
Also, in regards to promoting healthy relationships, the Wellness Center at PHS is looking to add new questions to the California Healthy Kids Survey. The questions have not been approved yet, but the Wellness Center is working on it, Wellness Center Director Michael Brady said.
The goal of these new questions is to find out what students’ attitudes are about sexual health, what kinds of pressure kids feel, if students are clear about their priorities, and the kinds of topics students want to have conversations about, said PUSD nurse Carol Menz.
PHS hopes that this information can help them meet and facilitate the needs of their student, Menz said.
“We just want to make sure that our students are engaging in behaviors that are healthy,” Menz said. “And we want to make sure students know where to go if they are not comfortable with whatever situation they are in, and that they have the tools to make decisions for them that are good as individuals.”
The Wellness Center decided to look into creating new questions because they felt that the survey module regarding healthy relationships is inappropriate and unsuited for PHS, Menz said.
Brady said that the survey will not be administered on Nov. 1, as previously scheduled. Students will take the survey either before winter break or 30 days after winter break.
At least one question will be deleted by PUSD from the core part of the survey, because it is confusing and poorly written. The supplementary questions about healthy relationships have not been finished or approved by WestEd, Brady said.
“I think that opinions that you might have individually, when expressed collectively, are pretty powerful,” Brady said.
Aldridge-Peacock thinks that Piedmont is heading in the right direction in regards to teaching their students about having healthy relationships.
“As a school and as a district, there has been more conversation about helping and talking about healthy relationships, and not just focusing on when things go wrong or being reactive to situations,” Aldridge-Peacock said.