By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

In Gloucester, a murky clarification

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 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.

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  1. Anonymous

    As someone who was a high-school girl a little over a decade ago, All this hand-wringing over the use of the word “pact” seems ridiculous to me. When a bunch of high school girls talk about getting a tattoo and a few go through with it, it’s ok to call it a pact. When a group of high school girls agree they want to get their navels/noses/eyebrows pierced, even if just two of them do it, it was a pact- a weak, uncommitted one, but still. In the 1980s-90s there was a rash of “suicide pacts” – a couple of kids in a suburban town would off-themselves, and the papers called it like it was, a suicide pact.Why is everyone so up in arms and backpedaling about this? I have no doubt that a group of Gloucester high school girls, in an environment where other students have babies, talked about how great it would be to all be pregnant at the same time and share clothes…have their babies around the same time and take group pictures on cell phones…group babysitting evenings so they could hang out sometimes..their kids could become friends…they wouldn’t have to go through it all alone, etc.Pacts, agreements, cross-your-heart-and-hope-to-die, pinky-swears…that’s what high school girls do – whatever their friends are doing. It’s an almost universal trait of the species. To suggest that 18 young teens decided independently, without seeking peer approval, to venture individually and alone out into the world to do anything – now THAT would be fiction.

  2. Don, American

    Now that we in California have gay marriage, can we expect pregnancy pacts next? Morality, schmorality. . . .

  3. Anonymous

    As soon as I read the TIME article, a red flag went up for me. As a seasoned journalist, my first question was: “How could Kingsbury’s editors let her go with a story that was not fully reported?”She failed to talk to the only people who could really know if there had been a pregnancy pact: the girls themselves.Instead, she wrote a story based on rumors, innuendo, and the statement of a principal who told her what he had “heard” around school. Anyone who has ever been a teenager knows how easily false rumors start.She never even talked to any of the families of the girls.Everything reported since _ the statement of one of the girls who denied a pact; the school daycare operator who said she never confirmed knowledge of a pact to Kingsbury, and now this statement by the principal who says he never used the word pact, only confirms my initial instinct.It seems that this was a case of a reporter more interested in scoring attention for a sensational story than in actually reporting a serious story about the real issue of teen pregnancy. And it is also a case of editors who did not do their job and challenge her reporting.Yes, some girls probably got pregnant intentionally. Yes, some were probably happy when they did.But a “pregnancy pact?” Other than Kingsbury, did anyone say that?As a journalist, that kind of sloppy reporting makes me ashamed of my own profession.

  4. Anonymous

    The principal did NOT say that he never used the word pact. The “seasoned journalist” in the prior post does not know how to read. The principal said he doesn’t remember using the word. In other words, he has an opportunity now to deny using it, and he didn’t take that opportunity. As a seasoned journalist myself, I read that as more of a confirmation than a denial — it’s called a non-denial denial, if I remember my Woodward and Bernstein correctly. (Dan, I believe you called this one wrong, too. It’s no confirmation, but it’s no denial either. From a public official on the hot seat, that lends more weight for than against.)I don’t understand all the attention to the word pact. I doubt that’s a word teenage girls would use, but as the first poster here said, it’s certainly something teenage girls do. Time magazine called it a pact. Maybe the girls called it a deal, a plan — that doesn’t matter. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether the girls called it a pact. The principal said there was an agreement, and that’s what Kingsbury reported. I’ll bet you $10,000 that the “seasoned journalist” is not.

  5. mike_b1

    Roughly 400% more teens than the norm get pregnant in one village, and the media wants to parse the words of the principal. Incredible.

  6. Anonymous

    “don, american”Are you really trying to blame this (now debunked) pact on GAY MARRIAGE? You are truly repulsive.(love the racist moniker, BTW)

  7. Anonymous

    The problem today is that there are no deterrents to unwed pregnancy. Society has gone overboard in giving its blessing to single mothers no matter the age, not that I would wish the level of condemnation that existed in generations past. Back in the 60’s I was an innocent victim of that condemnation. When I was 14 my 16 year old sister became pregnant. My horrified parents wisked her off to a home for unwed mothers, leaving me to take the heat in a small town where everyone knew everyone’s business. Being a sensitive young girl, it scarred me permanently, affecting my sense of self worth and affecting my life choices into the future. I would not wish that on anyone but as a society we do need to find a middle ground where it is not okay for children to have children. L

  8. Anonymous

    L,a few more “Baby Borrowers” on TV should do the trick. Sadly, multiple hours of preaching from parents ,(kid’s eyes looking upward to one-o’clock muttering “whatever”),will be trumped by one moronic TV show watched by at-risk kids. I guess it’s the results that count. Pretty sad though that in the “Information Age”, lots of girls will make irreversible decisions due to a lack of information.

  9. jvwalt

    I don’t see how society is “giving its blessing” to teenage motherhood. It’s no longer tarring, feathering, and ostracizing pregnant teens, but there’s no evidence of positive reinforcement. Any teachers throw parties for the pregnant students? Cake in the cafeteria? Baby shower after school? I see “pact” as the central word in the story. It’s not a word that kids would readily use, but then it didn’t start with them — it started with either the principal or the reporter. “Pact” is a word with a sense of definite formality — a treaty between nations, a written agreement. If the kids made a deal that could fairly be characterized as a “pact,” that’s a far more serious matter than if they offered each other some level of encouragement or support during their pregnancies. Now, the reporter and the principal are playing semantic games about this central issue. It does neither of them any credit.

  10. Anonymous

    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….Excuse me? His sources? Does he work for the CIA? Who are these sources? Teenagers? The nurses? A little birdie? The Gloucester Fisherman?

  11. MadMax

    It’s no longer tarring

  12. Anonymous

    Actually, according to the printed version of “Postcard:Gloucester” in the June 30 issue of Time, Kingsbury neither quotes Sullivan using the word “pact” nor directly attributes the word to him.Wedged between two quotes from Sullivan is the following: All it took was a few simple questions before nearly half the expecting students, none older than 16, confessed to making a pact to get pregnant and raise their babies together. Then the story got worse.Although it is suggested that the information came from Sullivan, Kingsbury uses no quotation marks or attribution for those two sentences, one of which contains the word “pact.”

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