Of sonograms and schoolbooks

Washington County struggles with a high teen birth rate while some girls take the view that having a baby is `the cool thing to do'


WILLIAMSPORT -- Janis Churchey sat at her high school desk, tired and queasy and unable to focus on her teacher. She leaned forward, her expression solemn, to whisper a secret to her girlfriend. She was pregnant.

Kelly Taylor, 15 and feeling alone with her own deep worries, was surprised. She was also suddenly relieved.

"I might be, too," she confided.

At that moment in February 2005, both girls recently recalled, they were in a 10th-grade Life Skills class learning about the disadvantages of having children too young.

Their lesson that day covered the expenses involved in caring for a baby.

Janis had more immediate help to offer her friend. Later that afternoon, as they walked out of Williamsport High, Janis discreetly reached into her purse and handed Kelly something she could use right away: a spare pregnancy test.

What might be most remarkable about their after-school exchange was how unremarkable it was in Washington County. Teen pregnancy has long been a familiar social issue in inner cities and isolated rural communities. But in this increasingly suburban, working-class county in Western Maryland - where public schools stress abstinence and preachers admonish that sex outside marriage is sinful - high school pregnancy and parenthood are commonplace.

Washington County has the highest birth rate for white teens in Maryland. And it ranks fourth in the state for births to girls from 15 to 19, behind only Baltimore and two mostly poor counties on the Eastern Shore.

Over the past 15 years, the adolescent birth rate has dropped by a third across America and slightly more in Maryland. Even big cities such as Baltimore have achieved steep declines by giving out birth control and launching safe-sex campaigns during the AIDS scare.

Here in the shadow of Stone Mountain, though, the number of teenage girls having babies has continued unchecked. In 2004, the last year for which the state has data, 206 high school-age girls gave birth in this county of only 141,895 people. That was three more than in 1991, the national high point for births to unmarried young women.

A combination of cultural factors, some of them related to Washington County's generally conservative bearing, has contributed to a birth rate so high that schools have been compelled to ban young mothers from bringing in "trophy babies."

Antipathy to abortion is widespread. Many teenagers are reluctant to obtain birth control - even when it's free. And parents, says Jacqueline B. Fischer, the school board vice president, oppose teaching "pretty much anything other than abstinence."

Yet co-ed sleepovers are popular now, says Maureen Grove, director of Girls Inc., an after-school program in Hagerstown, and even middle schoolers talk knowledgeably about oral sex.

"We're not acting on the values we're preaching," she argues.

In becoming parents, some teenagers are simply following the example of their own mothers and fathers or siblings. They see no reason not to.

In Washington County, where barely 15 percent of the population holds a college degree, schoolgirls don't always aspire to educational or professional attainment, seeing parenthood as their best option for fulfillment.

"If you have a college scholarship, and your life is mapped out through age 22, you're not very likely to risk getting pregnant," says Jennifer Manlove, a national teen pregnancy researcher at Child Trends in Washington.

"There's not the same ambivalence that shows up in less affluent communities," she adds, "where they don't really want to get pregnant, but they're just not as motivated to prevent it."

The stigma once associated with out-of-wedlock pregnancies and single parenthood has almost vanished in this region of rolling farmland and old factory towns. High school pregnancies, a sure-fire route to shotgun marriages less than a half-century ago, are now openly celebrated.

"I thought it was the cool thing to do," Sarah Cabral, a former Williamsport High student, wrote in a March letter to the Hagerstown Herald-Mail.

Her pregnant classmates were "getting all of this attention," explained Cabral, who had her daughter at 15. "They carry these babies around on their hips like a new purse that's in style."

At Williamsport High, a small-town school with a reputation for solid academics, Janis Churchey soon found herself surrounded by pregnant friends. Two girls in her child-development class announced that they were expecting. Kelly Taylor confirmed her suspicion with Janis' second pregnancy test. And Amanda Roberts, an 11th-grade cheerleading friend, had almost the same due date as Janis and Kelly.

In the cafeteria, classmates in maternity jeans passed around sonogram pictures. At Friday night football games, high school couples held hands - and their newborn babies. And in June, when 90 young women graduated from Williamsport High, six had babies in the cheering audience.

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