GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

June 24, 2008

Officials: 'We can't confirm existence of pregnancy pact'

By Patrick Anderson

Teachers and staff at Gloucester High School have not been able to confirm the existence of a pact between students to become pregnant, School Superintendent Christopher Farmer said yesterday. And the man who first suggested the idea, Principal Joseph Sullivan, has told Farmer he does not recall who first suggested it.

Addressing dozens of reporters, along with Mayor Carolyn Kirk and School Committee Chairman Greg Verga, Farmer said Sullivan, in a recent conversation, "didn't remember" who first told him about a pregnancy pact or when, before he spoke with a reporter from Time magazine about the issue.

Farmer said he has not spoken with any of the girls who have become pregnant, but that school staff who have had contact with them all denied ever hearing of an agreement to become pregnant.

Sullivan was not present at the news conference or a closed-door meeting held hours before to discuss a citywide response to the media attention. Kirk said she was not comfortable having Sullivan at the event because the city "could not confirm his statements."

She would not comment on his job status.

"He was foggy in memory of how he heard the information," Kirk said. "When we pressed for specifics, his memory failed him."

The Times has not been able to reach Sullivan over the past several days.

The suggestion that the teenage girls made a binding communal decision to become pregnant, attributed to Sullivan in a Time magazine story published last week, has attracted intense media attention and overshadowed what had already been a contentious debate about whether confidential contraception should be made available at the high school health clinic.

In a June 13 interview with the Gloucester Daily Times, Sullivan said the spike in teen pregnancy at the high school, around four times the usual annual number, had been the result of a social "clique of girls who wanted to get pregnant."

He also said a decision to provide confidential contraceptives at the school would "break the trust between parents and the school."

Sullivan first told the Gloucester Daily Times the district was worried about a surging pregnancy rate in March; other officials have also made it clear that a number of the 18 girls who tested positive as being pregnant at Gloucester High this past school year became so intentionally, with the idea of being moms together — and raising the children together.

The School Committee plans to vote on a new policy to limit teen pregnancy in Gloucester public schools, including a decision on whether to provide birth control pills or condoms, by the start of the next school year. Kirk, who also sits as a member of the School Committee, has promised a series of meetings and discussions with public health experts on the subject before any vote, but she would not say yesterday whether any city or school official planned to discuss the issue with the girls who have become pregnant.

The possibility that the "pact" could have begun after the girls at the high school became pregnant and referred to a commitment to stay in school and raise the children together has been raised by residents with children in the school; yesterday Farmer said it was one possible explanation for the reports.

"There is a difference between communally wanting to get pregnant and a group of girls with common circumstances," Farmer said. "There could have been a pact after the fact. That is a distinct possibility."

In response to questions about whether criminal inquiries into sexual abuse or statutory rape would be pursued, Kirk said that some "things" had been referred to the state Department of Social Services, and that an investigation was possible. She would not elaborate, however.

Sex by an adult with anyone under the age of 16 is illegal in Massachusetts, but police last week said they had not begun any investigations based on any complaints regarding the pregnancies at the high school.

The closed-door strategy session between city and school officials held before the news conference included Kirk, Farmer, Verga, city legal counsel Suzanne Egan, city Board of Health Director Jack Vondras, city Chief Administrative Officer James Duggan, school Student Assistance Program Director Amy Kamm and school Guidance Department Director Linda Ostolski.

In her opening remarks, Kirk said teacher layoffs and budget cuts over the past six years, exacerbated by unfunded requirements of the federal "No Child Left Behind Law" had led to a decline in sex education at the high school and was a concern of the community.

She said the current entertainment and social climate in the country, which had given significant attention to teenage television personality and mother Jamie-Lynn Spears, also may be contributing to the problem.

"Teenage pregnancy is nothing new and it is complex," Kirk said. "Gloucester is not alone in wrestling with this issue."

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