Why Memphis school’s teen pregnancy crisis is a wake-up call
By Deron Snyder
There was welcome good news last month regarding teen pregnancies, at least at the national level. Unfortunately, students at Frayser High School in Memphis didn’t get the message, considering reports that about 90 girls are pregnant or have given birth in the last year.
That’s a stark contrast to a federal report on the 2009 teen birth rate — 39.1 per 1,000 women — which was the lowest rate in nearly 70 years of record-keeping on the issue. By comparison, about 17 percent of Frayser’s 508 girls are either currently pregnant or recently had babies.
What we have is a failure to communicate. What we need are more drastic, in-your-face approaches.
My first thought was something along the lines of Scared Straight!, the 1978 Academy Award-winning documentary on a prison diversion program at Rahway State Prison. Several reincarnations have followed since then, including Beyond Scared Straight, which attracted a record A&E audience when it debuted last week. I thought if teenage girls could get a firsthand look at the struggles, challenges and problems associated with teenage pregnancy, that might steer them clear.
But it occurred to me that the girls at Frayser DO have a firsthand look — through the lives of their teenage classmates who became pregnant and had babies. Yet, more and more of them continue down the same path, a virtual one-way ticket to persistent poverty. Even shows like MTV’s 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom, which purport to discourage teen girls from becoming mothers, add a certain glamour to the subjects’ lives just by putting them on TV.
School officials are launching a new campaign called “No Baby!” designed to educate teenage girls and boys how to prevent and deal with unplanned pregnancies. It also aims to equip girls with the wherewithal to decline sexual advances. “Right now, these girls don’t know how to say ‘no,’ Deborah Hester Harrison, with the nonprofit group, Girls Inc., told WHBQ-TV. “They’re having sex when they don’t want to.”
My only question: What took so long? Most of the risk factors for teen pregnancy were already in place at Frayser High, a Title I school where nearly 100 percent of the students come from low-income families. Single-parent families; lack of parental supervision; mothers who were teen parents; sexual pressure from peers; sexually active friends and peers…those conditions are ripe for high rates of teen pregnancy. If individuals also have low self-esteem, a lack of long-term goals, no spiritual life and engage in drugs and alcohol, that only increases their risk.
School officials with similar student bodies in every jurisdiction should be proactive in addressing the issue. They can’t leave it solely to the parents, because too many parents are failing at the job. Whether it’s programs like “No Baby!” or something else, schools should offer fact-based, age-appropriate sex education that includes information about condoms and other contraceptives, as well as encouragement to hold off on sex.
Schools also need to drum the statistics into students’ heads, over and over, detailing how teenage mothers are more likely to drop out of school and depend on public assistance, putting their children on a similar path of academic underachievement, poverty and — often — a life in-and-out of the criminal justice system.
MTV should do a show on those long-range outcomes, depicting how teen pregnancy often crushes the lives of the mothers, fathers and children, creating a devastating effect on entire communities. Not only does it destroy family structure, it drains schools, courts and social services.
Is all of that too deep for teenagers to understand? Well, we won’t know unless we try. We certainly can’t let them continue thinking that nothing can happen the first time you have sex, or it’s cool to have a baby, or there’s no choice, no hope and no future. If parents aren’t getting the message across, then schools and community groups should do their best to fill in the gaps. We should demand as much.