GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

May 31, 2008

Boys also a focus in school contraception talks

By Patrick Anderson

Often overshadowed by the debate over providing birth control to female students, the role of the fathers in creating a spike in teen pregnancy at Gloucester High School is now coming under greater scrutiny from local school and public health leaders.

Addressing the issue before the School Committee, Mayor Carolyn Kirk said efforts to reverse the spike in pregnancies at the high school should include measures designed to deal with the boys representing one half of the problem.

"We can't forget the boys," Kirk said on Wednesday. "What are we doing with the outreach for the boys, if we know who they are?"

While school officials have said the 17 female students that have become pregnant at the high school this year represent four times the average annual number, little information has been made available as to how many of the boys responsible for making those girls pregnant also come from the high school.

Schools Superintendent Christopher Farmer said yesterday that determining the identity of the fathers of high school students' babies has been difficult because of confidentiality issues, but that his understanding from school staff is that many of the fathers were not Gloucester High students.

However, despite the fact that the school's ability to affect the sexual behavior of men who are not students is limited, Farmer said the district would do all it could to take the male side of the issue into account in developing a comprehensive plan to provide contraceptive services.

"The point the mayor made is well taken," Farmer said. "It is something we are well aware of and are looking into."

Calls to Gloucester High School Principal Joseph Sullivan yesterday were not returned.

With the spike in pregnancies at Gloucester High School running counter to dropping statewide teen birth rates, state officials have urged the city and school district to take practical steps to reduce the number of young girls becoming pregnant. While national teen pregnancy rates have turned back upward after a 15-year decline, state figures continue to fall, officials say.

Dr. Lauren Smith, medical director of the state Department of Public Health, said that any policy geared toward reducing school pregnancies should try to deal with the behavior of boys as well as girls.

"In general, if the discussion focuses only on the young woman who is pregnant, it is not going to lead to robust solutions," Smith said.

Trying to affect male sexual activity in high school through education, Smith said, often requires different strategies and communication techniques from those used to reach females.

"Approaches that may work with girls don't work with boys." Smith said. "Some communities have explored use of peer counselors and different models of intervention that help young men. The questions is how do you effectively include abstinence and comprehensive approaches to sexually transmitted disease and infections?"

Ultimately, she said, the most effective policies for combatting teen pregnancy usually involve wide-ranging, comprehensive work throughout the community.

"The important thing to stress is that teenage pregnancy is a complicated phenomenon," Smith said. "It has to take in a host of factors — both inside and outside of school."

Patrick Anderson can be reached at panderson@gloucestertimes.com