GLOUCESTER, Mass. The girls showed up repeatedly at the high school health clinic, asking for pregnancy tests. But their reactions to the test results were puzzling: high-fives if they were expecting, long faces if they weren't.
School officials in this hard-luck New England fishing town say an alarming 17 girls four times the usual number became pregnant this year. And even more disturbing: Some of the girls may have made a pact to have babies and raise them together.
"A typical girl you would think would say, 'Oh my God! What am I going to do now? How am I going to support this baby? How am I going to finish school?"' Superintendent Christopher Farmer said. "These young women clearly have not seen that."
The story exploded after Joseph Sullivan, the principal of Gloucester High School, was quoted by Time magazine this week as saying the girls confessed to making such a pact. Sullivan was on vacation Friday and did not return calls for comment.
The superintendent said he had no independent confirmation of a pact. But he added: "What we do know is there was a group of students being tested for pregnancy on a regular basis, which would suggest they were not taking steps to avoid becoming pregnant, and that when some of them had their babies, they appeared to be very pleased."
None of the girls or their families have come forward to confirm any type of pact, and school and health officials have not identified any of the youngsters.
The girls are all 16 or under, nearly all of them sophomores. The superintendent said they have been reluctant to identify the fathers, many of whom are older. But one of them "is a 24-year-old homeless guy," the principal was quoted as telling Time.
City and school officials in this town of about 30,000 people 30 miles north of Boston have been struggling for months to explain and deal with the pregnancies, where on average only four girls a year at the 1,200-student high school become pregnant.
Just last month, two officials at the high school health center resigned to protest the local hospital's refusal to support a proposal to distribute contraceptives to youngsters at the school without parental consent. The hospital controls the clinic's funding.
Mayor Carolyn Kirk said Friday there are many contributing factors to what she called a "blip" in the pregnancy rate, from glamorization of teen pregnancy in pop culture to cuts in funding that have reduced teachers and health classes in Gloucester.
"We have fallen on hard times," Kirk said of her city, which has suffered in recent decades with the decline in the fishing industry that has defined Gloucester since the colonial era.
Gloucester is the town that lost six fishermen in the 1991 shipwreck that inspired the book and movie "The Perfect Storm." Its high school teams are known as the Fighting Fishermen.
Student Council member Emily Spreer said many of the girls came from difficult socioeconomic circumstances: "Their circle or clique, they're not the most fortunate familywise."
"If you're a young person who really is struggling to find an identity for herself, absent the support and the guidance, it can become almost a default option for some to become a mom," said Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy. "We need to do more for young people and show them more paths."
Gloucester a heavily Roman Catholic town with a large Italian and Portuguese population has long been supportive of teen mothers. The high school has a day care center for students and employees.
Christen Callahan, a former Gloucester High student who had a child when she was 15, said on NBC's "Today" show that some of the girls would ask her about her own pregnancy. "They would say stuff like, 'Oh, I think my parents would be fine with it and they would help me,' stuff like that," Callahan said.
Sarah Brown, chief executive of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, suggested some of the blame lies with the nation's Hollywood-obsessed culture, in which stories about pregnant celebrities abound.
Just this week, 17-year-old TV star Jamie Lynn Spears, the unmarried sister of Britney Spears, gave birth. "Juno," a wry comedy about a 16-year-old girl who gets pregnant, was one of the most acclaimed movies of the year.
"Baby bumps get written about the same way designer handbags do. It's just one more lifestyle choice, just another personal expression: these shoes, this bump and that handbag," Brown said. "It's not surprising that teenage girls can get confused or even seduced by the allure of celebrity pregnancy."