Saturday, June 28, 2008

Turning Teen Pregnancy into Low-Rent Political Theater

Recently the principal of Gloucester High School in Gloucester, MA made national headlines when he told Time magazine that 17 girls at his school had made a "pregnancy pact"--in other words, they had agreed ahead of time to get pregnant and raise their babies together. The media has been all over this story, but for all the wrong reasons.

What should be a story about an important issue facing our children has become little more than a tabloid shocker and low-rent political theater. Instead of discussing the issue, the media is focusing on the "controversial" statements by the principal, and the local government's swift and suspiciously fierce moves to respond (the mayor is adamant that there was no pact, as if that makes this all better). Some Gloucester High students and graduates have even started a Facebook group to vent their frustrations, some more constructively than others. No one is asking, "What does it mean? What does it say about our community and our school?"

Where's the critical assessment of the district's sex ed curriculum? Only The Phoenix seems to be willing to even approach these kinds of questions. Are these students taught about the economics of raising children, or any basic financial education? The answer in most states is no. What does the school district plan to do to help and support these girls and keep them from dropping out? I haven't heard any answer on that.

I'm shocked, but shocked about the focus of the media coverage and political maneuvering, not that high school girls got pregnant. In the Rio Grande Valley, where I taught for five years, this was a reality we dealt with on a daily basis. In one middle school, a friend of mine had a 7th grade student who was actively and openly trying to get pregnant. Mom knew, but was nonetheless clueless and powerless to do anything about it.

I learned very quickly that for the most part there was no stigma attached to getting pregnant and dropping out of school. Some adults would tell my young female students that they had no place in school anyway--women are supposed to get pregnant and raise children, not go to college and/or get a job. I have nothing at all against girls growing up and being a stay-at-home mom, but I do take exception to my girls being told that's the only option.

In another case, I had a bright, hardworking student who spent her time outside of school taking care of her younger siblings and maintaining the house while her single mother was out drinking most nights. She was strong, but even an adult could only take the kind of emotional abuse that her mother wrought, and she lashed out and got into serious trouble. When I talked to her later, she told me that Mom frequently told her, "You're no better than me! You're going to be pregnant before you're 15 and drop out just like me!"

I also have stories of hope. One of my former students got pregnant in the summer after she took my class. With a lot of encouragement from my fellow teachers, she not only stayed in school, but transfered to a special district program designed to help students in tough situations (forced to work or stay home to support a sick family member, returning drop-outs, and student parents/soon to be parents). Not only did she finish her sophomore year, but took advantage of an accelerated program and graduated! Did she get the full benefit of a high school education? Probably not, but she has her degree, time to raise her child and the opportunity to eventually fulfill her dream to go to college.

Finally, I had a student who was already a parent get pregnant again while she was my student. I've had many students simply disappear when this happens; those that still come to school tend to fail because they do so sporadically and can't keep up with their work (and, consequently, fail tests). She was different. She came to school sporadically, but she was smart and determined enough to pass her classes. I can't even actually share the other traumas this girl endured leading up to these experiences, and I to be honest I can't tell you if she is going to stay in school in graduate. But I'd be surprised if she didn't.

I shared these stories to give a little perspective to this issue. I don't have the solution. I do, however, know that we can't treat these 17 Gloucester High students like idiots or pariahs. We as a society need to use this as an opportunity to discuss how to support and education our young people, to give them the best chance at a good life.

UPDATE 7/4/08: Apparently one of the pregnant students appeared on Good Morning America to set the record straight (something left out of most of the local news reports). Read Perhaps "Unlucky" Is In the Gloucester Water? from The MindOH! Blog.