By Melissa M. Scallan/The Sun Herald
GULFPORT, Miss. (AP) — Charleena Rogers got pregnant in May 2009 but didn’t tell anyone until she visited her mother in California at Christmas that year, and her mother figured it out.
She had no prenatal care for the first seven months of her pregnancy.
Now 16, Rogers has a 9-month-old daughter. She is trying to take care of her baby, keep up with her classes at Gautier High School and spend some time with her friends when she can.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life,” she said.
Thousands of teenagers in this state are grappling with the same issues as Rogers.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, Mississippi’s teen birth rate is 66 per thousand teenagers, the highest in the nation. The national average is 42.
Experts here say many factors contribute to the state’s high birth rate, including poverty, culture and a one-dimensional sex-education program in schools.
It likely would take years for any solutions to bring that number down, but experts said teenagers need more information about birth control and more involvement by parents, schools and communities.
Connie Jo Williams is the director of the Early Beginnings program in the Pascagoula School District. Twice a month she meets with teens at Gautier and Pascagoula high schools who either are pregnant or have children. Williams tells the students about resources for diapers and formula and helps them deal with the issues associated with being a teen mother.
She said children need more information, at a younger age, to prevent the pregnancies.
“The timing of the urge is natural. The timing of the consequence is not,” she said. “My true gut feeling is that we need to offer a comprehensive sex-education program in our schools. We’re doing an injustice in my mind by not providing this information.”
Jamie Scott, 16, has a baby who is nearly 2. She became pregnant the first time she had sex at 14.
“I wasn’t sexually active, so I didn’t use birth control,” she said.
Sex education is part of the health curriculum, and students learn about reproduction from conception to birth, but the only form of birth control they are taught is abstinence.
School boards can vote to teach other forms of birth control in their district, but for the curriculum to change statewide, the Department of Education needs a bill passed by the Legislature. Rep. John Mayo, D-Clarksdale, hopes he can help with that in January.
Mayo has drafted legislation for the 2011 session that would change the state’s health curriculum to include other forms of birth control besides abstinence, but not abortion.
He made the same proposal at this year’s session, and it passed the House but not the Senate. Mayo refuses to give up on the issue.
“I believe the state should provide the information,” he said. “What you do with it is up to you, but information is not deadly.”
Mayo said parents and communities need to be involved, too.
“Something has to be done,” he said. “We’ve got to tell girls what their options are.”
State Superintendent of Education Tom Burnham doesn’t necessarily agree the curriculum needs to be changed throughout Mississippi.
Department of Education spokesman Pete Smith said Burnham believes this issue should be decided in each district.
“Local districts can make the determination about what they need,” Smith said. “Schools and communities should decide whether more-comprehensive sex education needs to be taught. It should be based on the individual district’s needs, not one law for the whole state.”
Randy McGee, 17, has a 2-month-old daughter. She said she was afraid to tell her parents she was sexually active, but it was even harder to tell them she was pregnant. She did not use any birth control.
She advises other teens who aren’t sexually active to “wait and save yourself for marriage. It’s not worth it. I wish I had been scared.”
Scott makes A’s and B’s, but she misses a lot of school because of her daughter’s respiratory problems. She is in danger of losing credits because of the amount of school she misses.
Ronald Cossman, executive director of the Kids Count program in Mississippi, said it’s difficult to break the cycle of teen pregnancy.
“Many of these teens are growing up in a household where their mom was a teen mother,” he said. “So there’s almost a cycle or an expectation. If they can’t finish school because they have a baby, then they can’t get a good job.”
Cossman said teenagers need options when it comes to sex and birth control.
“They have to have a back-up plan,” he said. “If you want to make abstinence your primary form of birth control, that’s fine, but you need a Plan B. You need to teach them other forms of birth control. They need the education, and they need the knowledge to make better decisions.”
Williams has a 100 percent graduation rate for the girls in her program, but she said there’s no way to track them after high school.
“When the girls come to us, and they’re in school, that’s the best situation,” she said. “But I have no way of knowing what happens after they leave here.”
Rogers, a junior at Gautier High, said she plans to graduate from college and work as a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit, so she can make a good life for her daughter.
“I’m tired of people telling me I’m not going anywhere in life,” she said.
“I’m going to graduate, and I’m going to college, and I’m going to do whatever I want to do. I am not giving up.”