Gloucester High School principal Joseph Sullivan deserves a lot of credit for (more or less) standing by his words and standing up to Mayor Carolyn Kirk. But his statement, published yesterday in the Gloucester Daily Times, clarifies nothing, and leaves the story exactly where it stood on March 7, when the local paper first reported Sullivan’s concern that some of his students were getting pregnant deliberately.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped the media from wrongly proclaiming that Sullivan is confirming a story in Time magazine, which reported last week and in a follow-up that the principal had revealed the existence of a “pregnancy pact.” As we all know, Time reporter Kathleen Kingsbury wrote that seven or eight young women had agreed ahead of time to get pregnant and raise their babies together. That very specific allegation is what set of a media feeding frenzy. And Sullivan, in his statement, doesn’t address it.
Let’s deal with Sullivan’s statement first. Here is the heart of it, as he describes the interview Kingsbury conducted with him:
Her direct question to me was whether I thought the distribution of birth control prescriptions or prophylactic devices at the Health Center would have prevented the spike in the number of pregnancies that have been reported this year. I told her “no” because my sources had informed me that a significant number of the pregnancies, especially among the younger students, were the result of deliberate and intentional behavior….
I honestly do not remember specifically using the word “pact” in my meeting with the Time magazine reporter, but I do specifically remember telling Ms. Kingsbury that my understanding was that a number of the pregnancies were intentional and that the students within this group were friendly with each other….
I believe everything I told Kathleen Kingsbury was and is accurate.
What’s crucial to our understanding of the story is whether, as Kingsbury contends, the students set out ahead of time, by agreement with each other, to get pregnant. Sullivan doesn’t even mention that. Though he says what he told Kingsbury was “accurate,” he not only does not say that what she wrote was accurate; but he adds that he doesn’t know whether he uttered the word “pact,” which she quoted him as using. Thus he is openly questioning her accuracy, even as he appears not to be. As for his reliability on the underlying facts, Sullivan is not very reassuring, writing:
My only direct source of information about the intentional pregnancies at the high school was the former nurse practitioner at the Health Center. My other sources are verbal staff reports and student/staff chatter, all of which I have found to be very reliable in my experience as a principal and all of which I filter myself for accuracy and keep confidential.
This is old news, telling us nothing we haven’t known since March 7. That’s when Gloucester Daily Times reporter Karen Grieco wrote that the high school’s unusual spike in teenage pregnancies may have been at least partly the result of deliberate behavior. Here is the top of that story:
Pregnancies at Gloucester High School have spiked to more than three times the normal number this year, and anecdotes of girls deciding to intentionally become pregnant have been reported by one school official.
“To have this many is extremely unusual,” said High School Principal Joseph Sullivan. “The volume frightens me.”
To get to the bottom of the problem, Sullivan investigated and came up with a startling revelation: According to his conversations with upperclassmen, some younger students may be becoming pregnant on purpose.
Kim Daly, nurse practitioner for the high school, was unable to confirm specifics but did say that the majority of students reporting pregnancies this school year were in the younger grades.
This story had been out there for slightly more than three months on June 11, when, Sullivan says, he was told that Kingsbury was outside his office, hoping for an interview. Thus Gloucester’s very real social problems were already well-known at that time. The gasoline that transformed this into a media conflagration was Time’s one additional touch — that there was a “pregnancy pact.” It’s helpful that Sullivan confirmed 95 percent of this sad story in his statement yesterday. But it’s the last 5 percent that’s in dispute.
Even so, Sullivan’s statement is being taken as vindication of Kingsbury’s reporting, especially by Kingsbury herself. Taking a slightly different tack is the Boston Herald’s Jessica Heslam, who suggested on Wednesday that Time’s story was crumbling. Today she dutifully reports Sullivan’s statement, but I detect a whiff of skepticism.
The Boston Globe’s James Vaznis, too, fails to acknowledge that Sullivan’s statement doesn’t really address the heart of Kingsbury’s story. Vaznis also makes no mention of his own paper’s June 6 story, by Tania deLuzuriaga, which followed up the Gloucester Daily Times’ reporting about allegations of intentional pregnancies. That’s ironic, because Sullivan yesterday essentially confirmed everything that the Globe had a week before Time.
Which brings us back to where we were a few days ago. The one aspect of this story I don’t think anyone seriously disputed was the interview Sullivan gave to Kingsbury (although his statement now has me wondering). The real question, as I wrote on Tuesday, is what steps Kingsbury took to verify the information Sullivan gave her.
Though Kingsbury has not interviewed any of the seven or eight girls, she has claimed to have spoken with at least some of them. She implied that once again yesterday, writing, “So far, the students TIME has identified as allegedly setting out to get pregnant have declined to speak publicly about their reasons for doing so.”
On Wednesday, Kelly McBride wrote about the Gloucester story for the “Everyday Ethics” blog at Poynter.org. McBride faults Time for running with the story strictly on Sullivan’s say-so. I’m not sure I agree. Sullivan was and is an authoritative, on-the-record source, and Kingsbury backed him up with similar quotes from the school superintendent, Christopher Farmer. Plenty of journalism, good and bad, has been produced with no more than that.
But now we have a situation in which Sullivan has confirmed everything except the most explosive element of the story, and we still don’t know what else Kingsbury has as verification. Of this we can be reasonably sure: There’s more to come.