When we last visited Gloucester, Principal Joseph Sullivan of Gloucester High School was blaming the 17 simultaneous pregnancies of teens in his school on a weird pact made by the girls to become mommies together. In the ensuing days, after a media frenzy hit and the town formerly known for its “Perfect Storm” became the shame of America, the principal backed down from his story.
“Any planned, blood-oath bond to become pregnant, there is absolutely no evidence of,” said Mayor Carolyn Kirk. She said that school officials had pressed the principal, Joseph Sullivan, to explain his statement to Time magazine about a pact, but came away frustrated that he had no evidence.
Word spread that Joseph had all but made up the story in order to deflect criticism about his school being a breeding ground for teenage pregnancy. The pact was a hoax, a lie, a desperate effort made up by a man facing a PR nightmare. Relief for Mayor Kirk and the city of Gloucester. Or is it?
It’s a game of “pick the lesser of two evils” in Gloucester now. What’s worse; that many girls swearing an oath to each other to have sex until they get pregnant and then raise their children together like some group of children playing house, or that many girls in one school randomly having unprotected sex on purpose in order to have a baby and put a little love in their lives? It’s a sad story and a sad reflection on Gloucester and society in general, either way. But one would think the mayor and the school administrators wouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss the pact. A pact like that is a disturbing, yet hopefully isolated, problem. A rash of that many wanted pregnancies in one school is an even more disturbing trend.
Said school Superintendent Christopher Farmer: “I believe the issue of a pact has been greatly overstated. And I’m not sure what conclusions we would make if we knew whether or not there was a pact.”
We could draw a lot of conclusions, Mr. Farmer. None of them very good. If there was a pact, you have 17 girls who were completely uneducated in the realities of life. If there was no pact, and the girls all went out and did this on their own, whether accidentally or on purpose, then your school and community have a much wider problem than just a handful of girls wanting to live out some mommy fantasy.
No matter what the reason, the blame game is still in progress. Blame the media, blame Jamie Lynn Spears, blame an increasingly liberal society, blame economics, blame sex education, blame the lack of sex education, blame the parents, blame a depressed atmosphere in Gloucester. Indeed, several Gloucester residents interviewed in the aftermath of this fiasco basically shrugged their shoulders and said this is a way of life in their town; it is not at all uncommon for people to become grandparents in their 30s. If all these things may come together to make a perfect storm of blame, then we need to decide what to do about each and every one of them.
And when I say we, I mean all of us. Because Gloucester’s problems become society’s problems. When teens unequipped to deal with the harsh realities of parenthood crack under the pressure, when they realize they can’t finish their education or make enough money to survive and pay for child care, when they go on welfare, when they neglect or abuse their children or turn to drugs or alcohol or end up on the streets, they become our problem. Their children become our problem. In fact, the pregnant, pact-less teens of Gloucester are just following an alarming trend. For the first time since 1991, teen pregnancies are on the rise in America.
“What’s happening in Gloucester is a microcosm in some ways for what we’re seeing at the national level,” says Bill Albert, chief program officer for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy in Washington. “The good news is that we have made extraordinary progress as a nation [since the early 1990s] in convincing people to delay sexual activity and delay pregnancy and parenthood. The bad news is that progress seems to have come to a complete standstill and, in some ways, has reversed.”
So what are we doing wrong? Was I too harsh in dumping almost all the blame on the parents in my last article on this issue? Did I not place enough blame on the media or on our permissive society? It is true that the media glamorizes sex and that we sexualize our children at such a young age. While I am inclined to have the media shoulder some of the blame here, I still do blame the parents wholeheartedly, especially for their childrens’ ignorance. Case in point, the boyfriend of one of the pregnant girls:
“I would just guess to say that girls are just … getting unlucky, maybe,” he said. The couple said they were not planning to have a child. “Lindsey was on birth control. She was very careful with it, you know, because, obviously, we, at 17 and 20, we’re not ready for a kid.”
20, eh? I’d have to be dead before my 17 year old daughter was allowed to date a 20 year old. to Then again, this particular 20 year old seems to be on the maturity level of his equally stupid girlfriend. If you are not ready to have children, you are not ready to have sex. There is no 100% foolproof method of birth control, save for abstinence.
And what of teaching abstinence? That opens up the can of worms known as sex education. If your school has a sex education program and 17 girls still end up pregnant teens, well, you’re doing it wrong.
I know so many people gnash their teeth and get all worked up at the idea of schools teaching our kids about sex, but it has to be done simply because we cannot trust every parent to do it at home, or do it properly, and a sexually uneducated child — boy or girl — is a potential teen parent and a potential problem for all of us.
Too many people hear the words “sex education” and react viscerally with diatribes about teaching kids how to put on condoms properly or giving them tacit permission to go out and have sex, just take a rubber with you, ok? But that’s not what sex education should be. It should be a tandem undertaking between parents and qualified professionals to educate our children about their sexuality and how to handle the changes in their bodies and the desires that come with those changes responsibly. They need to be taught self-respect and the respect of those they date. They need to learn the dangers of sex, especially unprotected sex. There should be a year-long curriculum about the consequences of sex not just physically, but emotionally. They need to learn personal responsibility and how to develop a sense of self worth that lets one believe they are worth more than what they can provide to someone sexually. They need to know that giving up your body to someone does not mean they are going to love you. What they don’t need to be taught is that it is ok to have sex as long as you use a condom because it’s not ok. It’s not ok to tell a 16 year old that she can share that moment of intense intimacy with someone she will in all likelihood not be with in a month or two. It’s not ok to tell a 15 year old boy that his desires are natural and as long as he uses protection and his girlfriend is willing, he should go for it. It is ok, in my mind, to teach abstinence, to tell children — and yes, these are children despite the semantics of definitions — that they should wait until they are older to have sex, that they should wait until they are mature enough to handle the fallout that may come with it, the emotional baggage that comes with giving yourself up to someone.
Well what do you know, there is such a program, a federally funded one, available to Massachusetts schools. Unfortunately, this wasn’t offered in Gloucester.
(Governor Deval) Patrick refused to accept $700,000 in federal funds for abstinence-centered education, effectively killing the program that taught youngsters to respect themselves, have a vision for their future, and delay sex until they are older, preferably married.
Now that is what I mean by sex education. It looks like someone really dropped the ball here. The school offers pregnancy testing and a day care center, but doesn’t offer a program to teach kids about making good choices regarding sex. Sure, this kind of thing could be taught at home, but it should have been apparent to someone in charge that given the need for a high school day care center and the perpetuation of young motherhood in Gloucester, that it certainly was not being taught at home.
Sex education is not the monster some people make it out to be. It has, in a society where sexual imagery abounds and where so many parents leave it up to schools to teach their kids what should be taught at home, become a necessity. If done right, as described above, sex education would be lauded instead of demonized and perhaps those children who need the education most will be spared the results of being ignorant of the consequences of their actions.
It is now up to Gloucester to take action so this does not become a repeated pattern. The media might have done this town, and this country, a favor by exploiting the supposed pregnancy pact. By shedding light on the problem, the town will now be forced to do something about it. And perhaps the rest of us will take this as an opportunity to take stock of our own lives and our children and think about what we are teaching them and, more importantly, not teaching them.