GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

June 23, 2008

The challenge: Showing teens that pregnancy is no answer


As the global media spotlight on Gloucester starts to fade today, we are left with very few answers and a ton of questions surrounding this community's teen pregnancy crisis.

And the idea of several Gloucester High School girls deciding it would be a good idea to get pregnant and become moms together seems as truly stunning today as it did when we first reported in March that a number of the pregnancies at the school this year were very much intentional.

Yet the key question all of us in this community must consider — city officials, school officials, health-care providers, parents and, yes, teenagers — is how did this happen? And what can we possibly do to ensure it doesn't happen again? How is there such a disconnect — and in our community, apparently more than most — that a number of our young girls would somehow reach to the conclusion that it would be sort of cool to have a baby at age 15 or 16.

There are some things we do know:

r Does it really matter if some of the 18 girls who became pregnant this past school year truly had some sort of "pact" — the term used in Time magazine that took this issue to the global media level, but a term we had never used, and one that city and school officials now dispute (see all the Times coverage of the issue at gloucestertimes.com)?

Of course not. All that matters is that several local high school girls — those who elated when their pregnancy tests came up positive, and those who were disappointed when theirs didn't — have a decidedly skewed perception of what teen motherhood entails.

r Is about whether the school clinic provides birth control? Absolutely not. The school health clinic could have handed out condoms and birth control pills like candy without notifying parents, and it wouldn't have made any difference. So the highly publicized resignations of the clinic's medical director, Dr. Brian Orr, and nurse practitioner Kim Daly now seem more like a high-profile push for a change in policy than any meaningful effort to address the problem. The matter of whether Addison Gilbert Hospital, which administers the clinic, was right to defer to school officials when it comes to dispensing contraception without parents' consent almost seems irrelevant. That policy must be decided by school officials and the community — as the hospital has suggested — but it doesn't address this past year's stunning pregnancy spike.

r If school and medical officials are truly concerned about confronting this problem, they should start with a visit to the Police Department. These are criminal matters. Teens younger than 16 cannot legally consent to sex, even with a peer. At a minimum, officials should be pushing for statutory rape charges against any older men who participated in this — most notably the reportedly homeless 24-year-old man who is alleged to be among the fathers in this sad, sad scenario. That, at least, would raise the ante in terms of consequences.

But even that doesn't address a far more basic problem. For the Gloucester High pregnancy crisis is not a failure of education or a lack of birth control, or a lack of law enforcement. It is a sign of absolute moral collapse.

If education is to be viewed as the cure for all adolescent dysfunction, it has to include more than the mechanics of sex and how to use birth control properly. It has to include values. Abstinence deserves more respect than to be presented as just one of a number of choices that are all equally valid. Abstinence is not about denying young teens the good things in life. It is about protecting them from consequences that are likely to deprive them, long-term, of the good things in life.

School officials must also consider the message they may be sending with the in-school day care center. It is a laudable goal to keep these teen mothers in school — and the fact that none of the girls who became pregnant this year dropped out of school (The Times, Friday, June 20) is notable. But school officials must also try to avoid making teen motherhood look glamorous or attractive. Other young girls, looking at their peers getting all kinds of attention, affirmation and support through the day care center, may have decided they'd like that kind of attention as well, and that pregnancy is the answer. That's a message school officials have to nip in a hurry.

Finally, parents, teachers, coaches and all of those who work with young people should heed the words of the recent graduate who said one of the main reasons young girls seek to get pregnant is so they will have someone who will love them unconditionally. Clearly, these are young people desperately looking for love. If they don't find it in their families and among the other adults in their lives, they will look for it in the wrong places.

Is the answer to Gloucester's teen pregnancy crisis as basic as that? If so, how do we find it — and how do we somehow get that message to these kids and their parents?

Those, in the end, are the questions to which everyone in this community needs to find answers — and soon.