Amid student portraits and memorable moments is a deeper look at student life: parenthood.
By CANDACE RONDEAUX
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 8, 2002
PINELLAS PARK -- The yearbook at Pinellas Park High School features snapshots of hallway break dancing, a portrait of the girls softball team, candid moments in chemistry class.
And then starting on page 12, there is this: "I just can't believe that I'm having a baby."
The four-page spread on teen pregnancy features a stark black and white photo reproduction of a sonogram of a pregnant student's fetus in utero. A two-page article has interviews with five pregnant Pinellas Park students.
To some parents and students, the publication glorified teen pregnancy. Others say it was part of the reality of a modern high school.
"It was like 'Whoa! What's that in there?' I mean I've heard of pregnant teens before, but nobody expected it to be in the yearbook," said Melissa Finley, 15, a freshman at Pinellas Park.
But students also said the accompanying article describing the students' struggle to come to grips with unexpected motherhood might be the best way to prevent teen pregnancy. "As long as someone talks about it, it's probably not a bad idea. It's a big issue and a growing problem at schools all over the country," said 16-year-old freshman Charlotte Bupp.
According to a recent study conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, pregnancy rates for girls ages 15 to 19 declined 22 percent between 1991 and 2000. But roughly 1-million teenage girls in the same age range still get pregnant each year in the United States. On average about 53 to 62 out of 1,000 teenage girls in Pinellas County are coping with unexpected pregnancies, according to figures published on the campaign's Web site. That number is slightly higher than the national average of 49 out of 1,000.
Pinellas Park High School principal Denise Hart said she received just three calls from parents concerned about the yearbook's teen pregnancy article and photographs. Hart said one parent even called Hart back to say he had overreacted. The article was written for the school's yearbook elective class by senior Candice Reed and aims to transform cold statistics into candid stories told by five teenagers. The 18- and 19-year-old girls describe the burdens of early pregnancy as a "combination of heaven and hell."
One teenager detailed a moment when she experienced labor pains in the middle of class. "I felt this pain in my stomach, and it was like, 'Only 10 more minutes until class is over,' " she said. Another teenager interviewed for the story said she did not regret having her baby but admitted she often wished she hadn't gotten pregnant.
Senior Gretchen McDole, 19, one of the teen mothers interviewed for the article, said she was surprised that her story made it into print. Her daughter Jazmine was just a couple of months old when she was interviewed for the yearbook. McDole said her daughter is now 14 months old and in excellent health.
McDole said fellow classmates reacted mildly, though some students said the article "made it sound like getting pregnant was good."
Reed also interviewed Jennifer Walkowiak, Stacy Pauley, Shantrice Tinson and Lakesha Johnson about how they coped with their pregnancies.
Hart, the school principal, said the yearbook article should be treated just like any other controversial issue in a regular school newspaper -- as a matter of free speech.
"It's journalism. Some people think that because its a yearbook it's something other than journalism, but that's not the case. It's a very insightful article," Hart said.
Dan Evans, who teaches English and journalism and is the school's yearbook adviser, declined to discuss the teen pregnancy article but said he's proud of this year's 23-member yearbook staff.
Pinellas Park High School's yearbook won several statewide awards after Evans began supervising the staff of three years ago, including one this spring from the Florida Scholastic Press Association.
"We think about everything we do. We weigh all the demands very carefully. You have demands from the football team to include a picture of the team captain. Or from friends who want to see their picture in the book. Nothing is taken lightly; it's a painstaking process," Evans said.
Some students said they think it's important to talk about the issue, but they felt the article condoned teen pregnancy. "I don't believe in premarital sex, so I don't think it's right. I think that actual article was well-done, but they should have covered more than just the good side where they have the support of their parents," said graduating senior Wanyda Jean-Baptiste.
But teen pregnancy experts agree that opening up the dialogue on sex and teen pregnancy is a key part of prevention. Dee Burns, an administrator for the Pinellas County School Board's Dropout Prevention Services, said that in her work with the board's Teen Pregnancy Program she encounters hundreds of pregnant teens who want people to understand the difficulties they experience.
Although she had not seen a copy of the Pinellas Park High School yearbook, Burns said the article might help to spark a dialogue between adults and kids about one of the leading causes behind high school dropout rates.
"A yearbook is a reflection of a student's experience and their journey to adulthood. Whether we like it or not this is a reality for them," Burns said. "If we're asking them to be good problem solvers, we can't then go and criticize them for looking at and talking about a problem they face."