GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

June 20, 2008

Gloucester officials question pregnancy 'pact'

By Patrick Anderson

As news outlets descended on Gloucester yesterday, captivated by discussion about the surge in teen pregnancies at the high school, city officials questioned reports that a formal agreement, or pact, had been made between the students to become pregnant and raise the babies together.

School Superintendent Christopher Farmer said he had never heard the term "pact" from students, parents, teachers or administrators at the high school and planned to investigate whether the agreement was real or a product of the national media.

"I had never heard the term 'pact' until Time magazine wrote it," Farmer said. "All we knew was that there was a small group of girls who were not disappointed in the idea of being pregnant. I had never heard of any kind of communal effort that girls were trying to get pregnant."

The idea of a pregnancy pact between students began circulating after Time indirectly quoted Principal Joseph Sullivan as saying half of the expecting students had agreed to have babies and raise them together.

In an interview Friday, June 6, the last day of school, Sullivan described to the Times the group who had become pregnant as a social "clique" of girls who wanted to have babies. Sullivan has been on vacation this week and cannot be reached.

Mayor Carolyn Kirk yesterday said many factors have led to what she called a "blip" in the pregnancy rate, from glamorization of teen pregnancy in pop culture to cuts in funding that have reduced teachers and health classes in Gloucester.

"I have not spoken to any of the girls and have no way of knowing whether (the pact) is true," Kirk said.

The mayor urged residents not to jump to conclusions.

Debate about ways to limit teen pregnancy at the high school began earlier in the year after staff at the school's health clinic reported a larger than usual number of girls requesting pregnancy tests and many of them expressing disappointment if the results did not come back positive.

In March, school officials and the Times reported that 10 girls had become pregnant, and this week the medical director of the health clinic said the final total of pregnancies between June 2007 and the end of May 2008 was 18. In typical years, around three students at the high school become pregnant, according to school officials.

At a number of businesses along Washington Street yesterday, residents and parents were discussing possible reasons behind the fourfold increase in pregnancies at the school this year and whether Gloucester was being unfairly portrayed as a focal point of a teen pregnancy epidemic.

A woman who said she was the mother of a girl going into her senior year at the high school, but who would only identify herself as Sharon, said the news accounts had made Gloucester seem like the only community with teen mothers.

"It is not just Gloucester children who are getting pregnant," Sharon said. "There are girls in Rockport, Manchester and other towns you don't hear about."

Sharon said her daughter knew some of the girls involved and suggested that any "pact" between them had been made after they were pregnant and was to stay in school and raise the babies together.

Several employees of neighborhood businesses, who did not want to be identified, said their customers had been upset about Gloucester becoming known for teen motherhood.

After reports from the high school that at least one, and possibly more than one, of the men responsible for the pregnancies had been adults, some questioned whether a criminal investigation should be launched.

Yesterday, police Detective Kenneth Ryan said the department generally only investigates statutory rape cases if a victim has come forward with a complaint and at this point, no high school students or members of their families had done so.

City, school officials — and even Times personnel — spent much of Thursday and yesterday fielding interview requests from organizations around the country and globe.

School Committee Chairman Greg Verga said he had declined requests to appear on several cable talk shows, or to be interviewed by the National Enquirer.

Farmer said that, in addition to American newspapers, television and radio stations, he had been contacted by organizations from Brazil, Britain, France and Italy.

Farmer said he had been confronted with a large amount of inaccurate statistical information and characterization from the press.

"One journalist wanted to ask me about Gloucester being in turmoil," Farmer said. "It would be wrong to represent Gloucester as in turmoil to the rest of the world."

Patrick Anderson can be reached at panderson@gloucestertimes.com.