Pregnancies at Gloucester High School have spiked to more than three times the normal number this year, and anecdotes of girls deciding to intentionally become pregnant have been reported by one school official.
"To have this many is extremely unusual," said High School Principal Joseph Sullivan. "The volume frightens me."
To get to the bottom of the problem, Sullivan investigated and came up with a startling revelation: According to his conversations with upperclassmen, some younger students may be becoming pregnant on purpose.
Kim Daly, nurse practitioner for the high school, was unable to confirm specifics but did say that the majority of students reporting pregnancies this school year were in the younger grades.
While high school officials normally see around three pregnancies a year, this year at least 10 girls have become pregnant and appear to be planning to have the children, according to Ann-Marie Jordan, the school district's health coordinator.
Recently released national and state statistics showed the first increase in the teen birth rate in 15 years. However, because of the way statistics are compiled, that information is for 2006 — a two-year lag from the issue with which the high school is now struggling.
Patricia Quinn, executive director of the nonprofit Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, said that, while statistics may be behind, she has heard anecdotal evidence supporting just the issue worrying Gloucester.
"The sense is, there are more pregnant girls in schools," Quinn said. She said she had not, however, heard of girls intentionally becoming pregnant in her conversations with health professionals across the commonwealth.
The idea isn't a new one, though. According to Bill Albert, deputy director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 10 percent to 15 percent of teen pregnancies are intended.
Why it's happening
Sullivan said that he was eyeing Hollywood as one force that may be influencing teens to become pregnant. Nickelodeon star Jamie Lynn Spears, 16, recently announced her surprise pregnancy. Single motherhood or having children out of wedlock has become increasingly popular among celebrities; and blockbusters "Juno" and "Knocked Up" have presented views through rose-colored glasses of unplanned pregnancies.
"There's no data out there that measures this sort of thing," Albert said. "Babies certainly seem to be the latest fashion trend in Hollywood. You would have to be very naive to think that what goes on in the celebrity culture doesn't help shape the social script for teenagers."
Quinn said placing blame squarely on celebrities, however, can be a "smoke screen" for communities that need to become more involved in the problem to solve it.
Experts on all levels say that lack of access to birth control poses a huge problem for areas such as Gloucester.
"Kids have identified that there's not easy, confidential reproductive health care in Gloucester," Daly said.
The closest clinic at which students can access birth control is in Beverly, assuming they do not want to go to their family doctor. While Daly and her associates will discuss birth control with students, they will not prescribe it, and condoms are not offered at the school.
Sullivan doesn't see that situation changing.
"The community won't tolerate access to birth control at the high school," Sullivan said. "The nurse will discuss it, but that's a family and a doctor issue."
Dr. Joanne Cox, director of the Young Parents program at Children's Hospital in Boston, said that in-school programs for birth control are shown to be effective, as is education. Upon hearing of the situation in Gloucester, she said that considering birth control distribution in school would be wise.
"When 10 are pregnant — that's the time to have the political courage to do it," she said. She added that the lack of easily available birth control — which, she said, pediatricians are often hesitant to prescribe — is "probably the No. 1 reason" for an increase in pregnancies.
Quinn said that parental squeamishness in talking to their children about pregnancy could be a large part of the problem.
"I would argue, particularly around sexual issues, we often fail to give good guidance and then we are upset and angry when young people become pregnant," Quinn said. By giving teens a message that planning for sex is bad, she said, youths end up only having "swept up in the moment" sex — often without the forethought of protection.
High school habits
According to the Gloucester 2007 student health survey released in January, condom use at the high school is infrequent while sexual activity is high. Fifty percent of high school students reported having had sex — and, by 12th grade, that number rises to 68 percent.
Perhaps more relevant to the problem of teen pregnancy, however, is the low frequency of condom use that high schoolers report. An average of 65 percent of high school students reported using a condom the last time they had sex, and the number decreases as students age, from 73 percent of freshmen using them to 59 percent of seniors.
For now, Jordan said, the district is focusing on ways to keep the teen girls who are pregnant in school while reexamining its programs to figure out what types of pregnancy prevention methods work.
Currently, Jordan said, students receive sex education in middle school and are required to take a health class that includes the topic during their freshman year. According to Jordan, the program is abstinence-based, but high school classes hear about birth control as well.
"If you can delay sexual activity for kids, they make better choices," Jordan said.
After freshman year, however, there is no required sex education — partially because of cutbacks in the physical education program, which encompasses health classes. Those cuts began in the 2000-2001 school year.
Jordan said she was hoping to get money for another physical education position next year, but in budget discussions Wednesday, the School Committee did not plan to do so.
Jordan agrees with a number of experts who say that a key to preventing teen pregnancies is connecting students to their future.
"How is Gloucester ensuring that all teens see a future for themselves that does not include early parenting?" said Quinn. "They have to have goals. If they don't have them, early parenting can become a default option."
Kristen Grieco can be reached at email@example.com.
Teen pregnancy by the numbers
10: Reported pregnancies at Gloucester High so far this year.*
3: Typical number of reported pregnancies at Gloucester High yearly.*
$9 billion: Amount spent yearly by the federal government to help families that began with a teen birth.**
15: Number of successive years teen pregnancy decreased before increasing in 2006.**
1991: Peak year for teen births in the United States.
*Source: Ann-Marie Jordan, district health coordinator
**Source: National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy
Teen births in Gloucester
Source: Mass. Department of Public Health
Note: Numbers include pregnancies from all Gloucester females under 20.