Tuesday, November 6, 2001

Asriel Janifer wants to go into the Air Force and fly jets. Derrenzo Hines wants to play football. Their friend Ryan Vaughn isn’t quite sure where his destiny lies.
For now though, these three 13-year-old D.C. boys are pursuing something else good reputations.
“We don’t want people to mess with the Best Men,” said Derrenzo.
The three boys, all eighth-graders at Jefferson Junior High School in Southwest Washington, are members of the fledgling Best Men program, a companion to the highly praised Best Friends for girls.
Like Best Friends, which was founded in 1987, Best Men uses an in-class study program, physical exercise and mentoring to teach teens how to say no to smoking, drugs, alcohol and sex and yes to self-respect and healthy lifestyles.
Best Men also stresses an ideal of manhood: Its logo carries the image of an eagle as a symbol of vision, a lion as a symbol of strength, an anchor as a symbol of courage and strength, and a gavel as a symbol of truth and justice.
Boys learn “how to carry themselves as gentlemen, how to conduct themselves and have respect for themselves, women, young ladies and authority figures in general,” said Alan Holt, dean of students at Southwest Washington’s Amidon Elementary School, which has had all its sixth-grade boys in the program last year and this year.
Best Men started in the 2000-2001 school year at Jefferson and Amidon, and in several Milwaukee public schools. This year, the program is in the same schools, plus others in Texas and New Jersey.
It teaches boys “how to choose good friends, how to make the right decisions, and why you stay away from dangerous activities, such as sex, drug use and alcohol use,” said DeLeon Ware III, a math teacher who helps lead the program at Jefferson.
Elayne Bennett, founder of Best Friends, said Best Men was created “because every time we would talk about what we’re doing for the girls, someone would say, ‘But what about the boys?’”
Despite concerns that Best Men would siphon off resources from the rapidly growing Best Friends program which now has 5,000 girls in 99 public schools in 14 states, the District and the U.S. Virgin Islands Best Friends Foundation leaders decided “we just have to try,” Mrs. Bennett said.
Evidence of the Best Men’s positive impact could be seen after the first year in the District, said Mrs. Bennett, who is married to former Education Secretary William J. Bennett and is the mother of two sons.
In a survey taken at the beginning of the Best Men program, 31 percent of some 60 teen-age boys said they had had sexual intercourse in the past three months. By the end of the year, 20 percent of the boys said they had had sexual intercourse in the previous three months.
It was especially heartening that eight of the previously sexually active boys said they would abstain from sex either until they graduated or got married, said Mrs. Bennett.
Hundreds of abstinence-education programs are in place nationwide, but few target boys exclusively, according to the Abstinence Clearinghouse in Sioux Falls, S.D.
A program introduced this year the Game Plan Abstinence Program by Miami Heat basketball star A.C. Green and Project Reality of Golf, Ill., uses a sports motif, but can be used with both boys and girls.
Abstinence researchers say single males face formidable obstacles in sexual self-control the popular culture has exploded with permissive sexual imagery, while social messages to stay chaste and marry have weakened.
As a result, many teen-pregnancy-prevention programs stress sexual abstinence with young teen males, but later, “assuming that most older teen boys and young men will be sexually active,” focus on contraception, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy said in a 1997 publication, “Not Just For Girls: The Roles of Boys and Men in Teen Pregnancy Prevention.”
Still, studies in the 1990s indicate that boys were hearing abstinence messages. According to the federal Youth Risk Behavior Survey, in 1991, 57.4 percent of high school males had sexual intercourse. This figure dropped to 48.8 percent in 1997 and upticked to 52.2 percent in 1999.
The number of sexually active high school girls fell also, but less dramatically: In 1991, 50.8 percent of girls had sexual intercourse. This figure was 47.7 percent in both 1997 and 1999.
The District’s Best Men program involves 30 boys at Amidon and 60 boys at Jefferson, program leaders said. The boys have monthly meetings, where they study the Best Men curriculum and delve into such things as manhood, decision-making and relationship skills.
The boys learn that girls have pickup lines like “Come on, prove you’re a man” and how to resist them, said Mrs. Bennett. “We also teach boys that their role is to protect and take care of the girl,” and realize, that for a teen-age girl, “pregnancy would not be in her best interest,” she said.
Best Men members meet weekly for martial arts, which builds fitness and mental discipline, and have frequent contact with male mentors at their school. There are also field trips, sports activities, tutoring and community-service projects. Adult females are welcomed and appreciated, but the goal is to connect young men to strong male role models, program leaders said.
Derrenzo said that joining Best Men has helped him with self-control. “I had self-respect, but if an adult would say something to me that I didn’t like, I would just say something back,” said the youth, who lives with his parents and an older brother. “Since I’ve been in the program, I’ve been able to catch myself before I say something.”
“When I was in elementary school, I had just a little, tiny attitude problem,” said Ryan, who grinned as Mr. Holt, his former teacher, shot him a knowing look.
“When I heard about Best Men,” continued Ryan, whose parents have recently reunited, “I thought that this would help me to have some self-control and bring a brighter future for me.”
“I wanted to be in Best Men because I heard it was like Best Friends, and they’re so disciplined and have a good reputation,” said Asriel, who lives with his parents and two sisters. “Best Men helped me learn about drug abuse,” he added. “There are messages about ‘just say no,’ but really, you just can’t say no. [Best Men] teaches you the real thing, what to do when somebody tells you to take some drugs.”
In Best Friends, girls graduate into the Diamond Girls program in high school; many are eligible for college scholarships from the Best Friends Foundation. A companion program for high school boys, called the Iron Men, is being discussed, said Lori Anne Williams, the Best Friends cultural-arts director.

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide