, Gloucester, MA

August 14, 2008

Editorial: Sullivan's exit spotlights officials' mishandling of pregnancy issue

The pregnancy spike this past spring at Gloucester High School has claimed another casualty: Principal Joseph Sullivan.

Indeed, Sullivan's departure at the end of the week — he has resigned effective this Friday — is a casualty, not so much for him, since he is of retirement age, but for the School Department and the city overall. It also adds another measure of chaos to a school, and a school system, that desperately needs stability — and it didn't have to happen..

Sullivan, who has led Gloucester High for the past 10 years, was not universally admired. No school principal is. No administrator who has to make tough decisions every day will be without critics or enemies after a decade.

But by most objective accounts, he was doing a good job in a tough environment, bringing a firm but compassionate hand to a school that needs structure. And he had the support of the city and school leadership — that is, until his comments to a reporter brought unwanted attention to the city.

In an interview with Time magazine, Sullivan said that a number of students — all 16 or younger — had celebrated with their friends when their pregnancy tests came back positive. The story paraphrased Sullivan saying there were "high fives" and "plans for baby showers" among some of the teens. But Time also reported that Sullivan had said the students had formed a "pact" to become pregnant together, and then raise their children together. That word prompted an international media firestorm that Mayor Carolyn Kirk and Superintendent Christopher Farmer clearly blamed on Sullivan.

Sullivan has said he doesn't recall using the term "pact," but then again, he was never really given the chance to confirm, deny or explain. When the media storm broke, Sullivan — like all other school personnel — was ordered by Farmer not to comment. He was barred from participating in any of the multiple press conferences. Mayor Kirk spoke for him, saying Sullivan's memory was "foggy," and that he couldn't recall what he had told the Time reporter.

In a statement issued along with his resignation, Sullivan reiterated that his memory was not so foggy. The answer he gave the reporter, he said, was "direct, truthful and honest."

Among the major reasons for his resignation, he said, were that Kirk had scapegoated and "slandered" him, Farmer had muzzled him, and he had lost not only the confidence but any involvement with the School Committee. The mayor, he said, had not once spoken to him since the Time article appeared.

While some may paint that as an overreaction, Sullivan has good reason for his stance. Not only was he ordered to remain silent while his reputation was tarnished, but since then he has not been consulted or even involved in the discussions that will eventually lead to policies on birth control and sex education for the school. These may well prove to be policies he might not support, but would be expected to enforce. That is not only insulting, but as Sullivan realized, it made it impossible for him to continue. No administrator can function effectively when he is being undermined and muzzled by his superiors.

So now, among all the still-unanswered questions about the pregnancy spike, there is another that Gloucester residents — particularly those with connections to the School Department — must ask: Why did the handling of this admittedly difficult situation have to cost the high school such a good administrator and respected school leader?

All of this only adds to the unrest and chaos already facing a school that will open in three weeks — and consider this:

The school will have an interim principal. Its day-care center is not licensed to handle the potential demand by student mothers. The policy discussion over what to do about teen pregnancy is barely under way — and already one set of talks won't even involve the School Committee, which has sought to remove itself from a series of misnamed "public" discussions in the hopes that it can bar the press.

The departure of Joseph Sullivan shows more than ever that city and school officials have mishandled this problem from the beginning. And this latest chapter shows they have learned little or nothing from their mistakes. That's a shame.