Two years after a dramatic spike in teen pregnancies at Gloucester High School began to draw local attention — and 20 months after a global media circus descended upon the city on reports of an alleged "pregnancy pact" — a third film about the saga is headed for a special big-screen premiere Thursday night in Cambridge.
But in contrast to the locally panned and fictionalized Lifetime Networks film "The Pregnancy Pact," which reopened raw wounds for many in Gloucester last month, this independent documentary film is drawing praise from local and state health officials close to the teen pregnancy issue then and now.
The filmmakers are showcasing "The Gloucester 18" in a special screening and post-film panel discussion organized by the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy.
"What we saw in the film was the true spectrum of what happens in teen pregnancy," said Dr. Brian Orr, who directed Gloucester High's health clinic as the 2007-2008 pregnancy spike unfolded.
"There was the story of a premature baby that is in the film, and an infant death; teen mothers are at higher risk for prematurity and sudden infant death syndrome," Orr noted.
"What played out here is not the pregnancy pact, but the reality of what happens with teen pregnancies," he said. "It's not a pretty picture."
Orr noted the prevalent outcomes of teen pregnancies, with the young parents dealing with poverty, prematurity, miscarriage, abortion and other issues.
"I think what this movies helps to show is that as a result of our teenage pregnancy crises, we had a systemic paralysis," he said. "There was total paralysis on how to handle it and even discuss it. But I think we got over that in Gloucester in regard to having the conversation about what do you do and what's helpful."
The 67-minute film, directed by John Michael Williams, with former Gloucester Times reporter Kristen Grieco as the story's producer, includes interviews with several of the teens, parents and friends, and follows at least one through the latter stages of her pregnancy. It also includes updates on the young families — and notes that teenage pregnancy is on the rise across the nation.
A number of interviews also confirm issues that have been reported in the Times and elsewhere, but not spotlighted. For example, Orr — who has worked in teen health clinics for two decades — refutes what he calls the perception that the 18 pregnancies "produced 18 babies." In the film, he states that about a third of the pregnancies were terminated.
The documentary notes there are an estimated 750,000 teen pregnancies a year in the United States, the highest in the developed world, putting the nation at a level with Third World countries. The film follows both Lifetime's "The Pregnancy Pact," and 2009's "Eighteen Pregnant Schoolgirls," a documentary by London-based October Films broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation — including BBC America. The British film was also carried by the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) as part of a weekly investigative series.
"I think others can take a lesson from this episode in Gloucester and get away from excuses that birth control is dangerous, which is an adult excuse," said Orr. "Let's have a real conversation and try to get a systemic approach to the problem."
Grieco — who as a Gloucester Times reporter in March 2008 broke the story that 10 GHS students were pregnant at the time, and then-Principal Joseph Sullivan expressed concern that a number of the pregnancies were intentional — said "The Gloucester 18" filmmakers' mission was to carry out an in-depth look at the Gloucester issue in the months and year that followed. Grieco left the Times to take a public relations position in April 2008 before joining Williams on the film project.
"Everyone was turning around (news) stories in a day or two, but we delved into it," she said.
"The whole pact was the least interesting part," she said. "The really interesting thing was the universal lessons you could learn out of Gloucester about teen pregnancy. First of all you can't paint the entire teen population with one broad brush to understand why girls get pregnant."
Of the 12 girls interviewed in the film, two were on the fringe of the "pact." One girl only attended Gloucester High for about a week and no longer lives here. Another teen mother, now 21, already had graduated and had both her children before this group of girls became pregnant.
When asked if she believed there was a pact after the investigation, Grieco said they did not find any such evidence.
"My conclusion is that it was a word that (then-GHS principal Joseph) Sullivan and (Time magazine reporter Kathleen) Kingsbury used," she said. Sullivan had also told the Times he was concerned that a "clique" of girls was trying to become pregnant, so distributing birth control to students would not have helped the situation.
"(The idea of a pact) is an adult putting a word behind teenage behavior, and that usually doesn't pan out," Grieco said. "It is such a sinister word that is distracting from the real issues. The girls had been ostracized by media coverage and were getting labeled because of the inflammatory word."
The filmmakers talked to 12 of the 18 girls, though four chose not to go on camera, and not all had their babies.
Alissa Silva, the mother of one of the girls, said on film that she and her daughter learned about the "pact" while watching television. In a later segment, the elder Silva recalled that, when she was at Gloucester High, there were 14 pregnant girls.
Kim Daley, the nurse practitioner at the clinic, was interviewed at length. When talking about the alleged pact, she said: "It didn't change anything at the end of the day. What difference does it make?"
Both Orr and Daley resigned over what they saw was the process involved in getting clearance to bring the topic of birth control at a community level, not just at the advisory committee level.
Daley notes in the film that the pregnancy numbers at Gloucester High were lower than many other places — noting that urban schools can have upward of 70 pregnancies a year.
The filmmakers also talked to teens and school counselors in Lowell and in Springfield to confirm those points.
After Thursday's premiere — set for 7:30 after a 6:30 p.m. reception at the Kendall Square Cinemas, Grieco said there are not yet any plans for a local viewing. She said she, Williams and others are still working on the film's distribution.
Orr said he believes the movie could have a place with pregnancy prevention programs. In the film, he talked about the impact on the next generation.
"When you look at long-term statistics of children of teenagers, the girls are more likely to be teenage mothers themselves and the boys of teen-age mothers have a higher rate of incarceration. This is probably due to parenting and relationship issues," he said. "These teen mothers don't have parenting skills to navigate their teens through their teenage years. They didn't navigate themselves through teenage years."
When asked why he believed there was such a spike with the 18, as compared to the usual four or five a year, he said there is no single answer.
"But there's probably at least a part of that is linked to the history of Gloucester and a lot of these young women had teen mothers," he said. "Because of that, the risk is there.
"The other part we have to recognize," he added, "is that we are seeing a rise in teen pregnancy across the country in the past two years, and this is the tail end of abstinence only program across the country. It's unfair to single out Gloucester."
The film doesn't address all the repercussions of the story; for example, Sullivan abruptly retired as GHS principal in August 2008, then some two weeks later took a job heading a Catholic elementary school in Wakefield.
The film does, however, provide updates on several of the young mothers, their babies and their families — and it poignantly addresses the tragic October 2008 death of the Silva baby, reportedly from sudden infant death syndrome.
"This movie just tells the truth," Orr said. "The Gloucester story has been out there in such a false way and this is the truth — even with the negative side of the issue."
Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3445, or at email@example.com.