'Pregnancy Pact' School Explores Options for Sex Ed

School board releases a proposal for new policy on dealing with teen pregnancy.

Sept. 24, 2008 — -- Prompted by a so-called pregnancy pact among a group of high school girls, the Massachusetts school where the drama first unfolded is working on revamping its sex education program, including proposals to allow contraception distribution and to provide in-school day care.

The draft of the policy, which the Gloucester schools released this week, is expected to be discussed tonight in a public meeting at city hall. In addition to in-school child care, the proposed plan includes offering sex education that teaches both abstinence and contraceptive use.

The plan also outlines a wide range of additional options, from banning birth control entirely at the school health clinic, to allowing access to contraception (both birth control pills and condoms), with or without parental approval.

"Right now the policy is no contraception. Tonight we will look at the panel's findings and recommendations and decide are we going to change that? Will it be confidential contraceptive? Will it be parental consent? Tonight's meeting is to clarify some of the concepts that have come across,'' school committee chairman Greg Verga told ABCNews.com.

Verga insisted that tonight's meeting would be to summarize the findings of the blue ribbon panel that was created to look at the issue of teen pregnancy after the issue burst onto the national landscape this spring when 17 teenage students at the high school got pregnant.

The unusually high number of pregnancies prompted assertions from Joseph Sullivan, the Gloucester High School principal, that the girls had entered into a pact to get pregnant and help each other. The mayor and the school superintendent disputed the idea, and Sullivan eventually resigned.

The committee is especially interested in coming up with a plan to address contraceptive distribution at the school, a hot-button issue that exploded at the end of the school year when a clinic doctor, Brian Orr, and a school nurse, Kim Daly, quit in disgust over the School Committee's refusal to let them disseminate birth control without parental consent.

The issue of the on-site school day care center at Gloucester High School will also be on the table tonight for discussion, Verga said.

Last month Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk came under fire by residents after she announced that she wanted to bar the press from attending public forums on the issue that are scheduled for Oct. 1 and 2. That announcement -- coupled with the fact that popular Gloucester High School Principal Joseph Sullivan quit because of a lack of support from Kirk -- led many angry constituents to start a recall petition against the first-term mayor.

Verga said that request has been tabled and that the press will be invited to attend.

"It's a public hearing and it will be open to the public,'' Verga said.

Calls to the mayor's office went unreturned by deadline.

In August, Sullivan announced his resignation with a letter in which he defiantly stood by his public comments about the "pact" and slammed the town's school superintendent for suggesting he had been wrong and couldn't remember who told him about the pact. Sullivan's angry resignation letter accused the mayor of slandering "my reputation, my integrity and my intelligence."

Mayor Kirk is the target of a recall petition circulated by a dozen residents who are outraged at Sullivan's resignation and the mayor's handling of the scandal. The petition claims Kirk slandered the principal and failed to lead the city "fairly and effectively."

"Carolyn Kirk is out of touch with this community and doesn't understand our needs, and it was absolutely unfair the way that she treated Joe Sullivan," Annette Dion, a 45-year-old private music teacher in Gloucester, told ABCNews.com last month.

"This [petition] is giving people an opportunity to vent their anger and frustration, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive so far since we started Friday."

In the petition, which needs more than 4,000 of the town's 20,672 registered voters to hold a recall election, the group also claimed that Kirk has refused to investigate and prosecute municipal fraud unrelated to the pregnancy pact controversy.

Kirk defended her handling of the scandal in a statement released last month: "Since taking office, I have ruffled feathers because it is not business as usual. I have had to make extraordinarily difficult decisions, but always, my motivation is what is best for the city as a whole."

She continued, "For my part, I made a choice to come to the defense of the privacy of Gloucester teenagers and their families," the mayor said. "Gloucester now more than ever needs courageous leadership."

In Sullivan's letter to the superintendent, Sullivan wrote that he "gave a direct, truthful and honest answer" when he was quoted in Time magazine as saying that the multiple pregnancies were the result of deliberate and intentional behavior.

Local officials and some of the girls had disputed that description of a pact, claiming that the increase in the pregnancy rate was a coincidence.

Sullivan also slammed the mayor and superintendent for not coming to his defense when the scandal made headlines in June and ended his letter with some words of advice for the school's students that implicitly seemed to refer to the scandal: "Constantly check your moral compass and do what's right, even if you find yourself at times swimming against the tide."

News of the pregnancies at Gloucester High School made headlines earlier this summer after Time magazine published an article that included an interview with Sullivan that characterized the pregnancies as a "pact."

Rumors about a pact had put local officials on the defensive. At the time, Kirk denied there was evidence that the pregnancies were anything but a coincidence and blamed the increased number of teen mothers on a lack of health education funding and the "glamorization of pregnancy" in the media.

"Beyond the statement of the principal, we have no evidence there was a pact," Kirk said. "The principal could not remember who told him that."

Sullivan said he issued a statement to the Daily Times to "put to rest the notion that I am 'foggy in my memory' or that when pressed, 'my memory failed.'"

One of the pregnant girls, Lindsey Oliver, 17, told ABC's "Good Morning America" in June that the pregnancies were not intentional but "unlucky" and a "coincidence."

"There was definitely no pact," Oliver, who became pregnant when she was a junior, told ABC News. "There was a group of girls already pregnant that decided they were going to help each other to finish school and raise their kids together. I think it was just a coincidence."

Oliver said the school should reverse a policy that bans the school's distribution of contraception to students.

"[Officials] said they want to make a difference but won't do anything to help [students]," Oliver said. "They should be giving contraceptives out in the nurse's office."

Asked if distributing condoms and birth control would further encourage underage sex, Oliver said, "The kids are obviously having it anyway; there are 17 pregnant girls."

Kirk said that district policy did not permit the distribution of contraceptives, but that the policy was under review.

Sullivan said in his statement and to Time that the distribution of contraceptives would not have curbed the number of pregnancies, because the girls were actively working to get pregnant.

According to Sullivan, as quoted in the Time article, one girl had sex with a 24-year-old homeless man, although the mayor has said that there's no evidence of anyone committing statutory rape.

Gloucester, a socially conservative fishing town about 30 miles north of Boston, has struggled with teen pregnancy for years, although on average only four girls a year typically became pregnant at the 1,200-student high school.