Reflection on Peer Education as Freddie Gray Trial Begins

UPDATE: Second Officer Goes on Trial

Sandtown is one of the poorest sections of Baltimore. At 21percent its unemployment rate is four times the national average. It has a population of only 14,000 but its infant mortality rate is 21.2. That’s three and a half times the national average!

Back, on the morning of April 12th, 2015 Freddie Gray, a 27-year-old resident of the Sandtown neighborhood was chased by police, arrested, placed in leg irons and detained inside a police wagon for making eye contact with an officer. An hour later, paramedics were called for an “unconscious male” at the Western District police station. Gray, it was reported, was in serious medical distress. Paramedics rushed Gray to shock trauma where he died less than a week later. The nation watched as protests were overshadowed by violent outbursts and looting and Baltimore was forced to issue curfew. Six officers were later charged with misconduct and his death. Now, the first officer involved in the death of Freddie Gray is set for trial Monday, November 30th.

According to a study by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health that looked at the poorest sections of five major cities in Asia, Africa and the U.S., a staggering 50 percent of young females in Baltimore reported a pregnancy, which researchers associated with more time out of school, more violence in the community and respondents’ “perception of a poor physical environment.”

Freddie Gray’s death did not occur in a vacuum. This Johns Hopkins’ study looked at the health challenges (violence, limited health services etc.) common among youth in impoverished urban areas including Sandtown. The study analyzed various aspects of poor neighborhood environments, like physical deterioration, social cohesion, perceptions of safety and fear, and observed violence.

Interestingly, the reporting from the five cities is almost uniform. For example, it found that young people’s physical and social environment greatly impacts their perception of their health. All the youth who participated in the study were “very much focused on the unhealthful aspects of their physical and social environment when they were asked to talk about or depict their health.”

The study also notes that substance abuse is high across the board among adolescents in poor neighborhoods as is depression, post-traumatic stress, sexual violence and suicide ideation. Those with more access to social support, however, report better mental health scores.

The study also examined what role social support systems played in the health of youth from these poor areas. Across the board, both young women and men indicated that social capital (positive relationships with adults and peers) was the most important of all indicators of good health.

Peer education programs can be a powerful approach to educating youth and changing their attitudes. Studies show that teenagers and young adults receive most of their information about sexual expression from other youth and the media and that peer influence becomes increasingly important as adolescents mature.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that peers influence youths’ health behaviors—not only in regard to sexuality, but also in regard to violence and substance use. Peer education can support young people in developing positive group norms and in making healthy decisions.

Peer educators are a vital tool to affect change because they relate to their peers on a different level than the government, health professionals or adult health educators. Preconception Peer Educators should be proud of the work they are a part of in the elimination of health disparities but also understand just how valuable their volunteerism is in real time, in neighborhoods like Sandtown.





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