90 Pregnant Teens at One Memphis High School Media Splash Turns Out To Be Just Grownup Gossip

“90 pregnant teens at one Memphis high school!” media splash turns out to be just grownup gossip

February 7, 2011

Three weeks ago, a national media splash alleging a huge “spike in pregnancies” at one Memphis high school variously reported that 86 or 90 girls representing 18% or 22% or “one-fourth” of the female student body were pregnant. Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, the New York Daily News, and The Daily Beast were among those that aped mindless sensationalism rather than carefully checking facts; only a few, such as National Public Radio, were properly skeptical. Model/reality-celebrity Kim Kardashian (just in time for her newest nude photo spread and suggestive ad; sorry, no sex tape this time) grabbed limelight, blaming MTV’s “Teen Mom” program for the Memphis pregnancies, and the commentariat predictably flamed.

It would be comical—another media free-for-all over another supposed “teen sex crisis,” just like the phony Gloucester “teen pregnancy pact” hullaballoo in which every lurid press-trumpeted “fact” turned out to be fiction—reaffirming how vulnerable the vocal moralizers to swallowing just about “teen crisis,” no matter how lunatic. If valid, Memphis’s “teen pregnancy” levels would be higher that found in Bangladesh.

Where did Memphis’s scary numbers come from? When YouthFacts investigated, we found the standard grownup gossip-frenzy. It began with local interest groups spreading made-up numbers to worshipful press coverage. Then, when the stats were exposed as faulty, the same interests that had broken their legs getting in front of reporters suddenly dummied up in “we never said that!” demurrance.

As far as we could find, the “90 pregnancies at one high school” numbers were first reported by Memphis’s Fox Newsaffiliate, which attributed them to an unnamed “coalition helping to reduce the teen pregnancy rate in Memphis City Schools.” Our email to the story’s reporter, Jill Monier, asking for the name of the “coalition,” (specifically, whether she meant the school-community coalition formed on the issue) received no response. Another Fox reporter we queried, Les Smith, did reply, claiming the number came from an unnamed official in the Memphis schools office who preferred anonymity. Already, the big story was headed Gloucesterward.

After a few days of nationwide furor, Memphis’s daily newspaper and most officials took more factual approach. Memphis Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash declared the numbers were wrong; while there may have been a program serving the entire Frayser community and several high schools, no one school has more than “20 pregnant students.” Local teen pregnancies, far from increasing, actually are on the “on the decline,” health and city officials confirmed from state tabulations. “This is not a new problem,” Cash said of high pregnancy rates in severely impoverished areas.

In fact, a staggering “36% of children live in poverty,” the Urban Child Institute’s 2010 report concluded. “The Memphis child poverty rate is double the national rate.” Cash also cited the uncomfortable point that the fathers aren’t usually teen boys: “too often in Memphis it’s not the peer group. There are older males who are predators on these young females.” Another girl cited “generational rape”: “her grandmother was raped and became pregnant with her mother, then her mother was raped conceiving her, and then she became pregnant through rape.” Concluded Cash: “These are young people who are under siege just to survive every day.”

Unfortunately, the local Girls Inc. CEO Deborah Hester Harrison chose instead to grandstand with emotional claims, all absent any glimmer of evidence, that “the teen pregnancy rate in Frayser is 26 percent,” Memphis’s teen pregnancy “problem is growing,” “it’s more acceptable now in this generation to become pregnant,” and MTV’s “Teen Mom” and “sexually oriented” society are to blame for “teen pregnancy.”

All complete junk. My January 29, 2011, op-ed in the New York Times stated: “the scary number” that “one-fourth of girls at a Memphis high school were pregnant… had been publicized by a local official with the advocacy group Girls Inc.” and “was vastly exaggerated.” Girls Inc.’s national publicist disputed my attribution, claiming the statement by Harrison to local and national media that “the teen pregnancy rate in Frayser is 26 percent” referred to the entire Frayser community (specifically, the 38127 zip code), not Frayser High School.

I’m happy to acknowledge that correction. The problem is, Girls Inc. is guilty of an even wilder exaggeration. The following two news accounts are typical:

“The national rate of teen pregnancy is 10 percent,” explained Deborah Hester Harrison, president and CEO of Girls Incorporated of Memphis, which is working to raise awareness about the issue. “Our state rate is 13 percent, and our city rate is somewhere in the 16 to 20 percent range.” … The teen pregnancy rate in Frayser [community] is 26 percent,” Harrison said. “There are 10 in this city that have 20 percent or more—zip codes of teen pregnancy.” These numbers, collected by the University of Memphis, are based on 2008 statistics. But Harrison said the problem is growing, and expands beyond the city of Memphis.“It’s more acceptable now in this generation to become pregnant,” Harrison theorized. Her group hopes to change that with a two-year pilot project, a campaign to raise awareness. The “No, Baby” program will start at Frayser High, before expanding across the city. Harrison says the group chose Frayser because Girls Inc. has a history working with the school, and wanted to re-establish those ties. The group will work with Memphis City Schools too. —Dancy, S., “Memphis Teen Pregnancy Rate Passes National Average,” ABC24, Memphis, January 14, 2011

In Memphis, the teen pregnancy rate is between 15 percent and 20 percent – and in Frayser, the rate is 26 percent, said Deborah Hester Harrison, executive director of Memphis’ Girls Inc. It’s no surprise that Harrison places at least part of the blame on the media, such as the popular MTV shows “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom.” “So much of our society is sexually oriented. As adults we can look at that and it doesn’t impact us, but kids are different,” Harrison said. –Eng, James, “90 pregnancies at one high school,” MSNBC, 14 January 2011

Readily available Tennessee Department of Health figures for 2008 and national statistics show that 4.4% of Shelby County’s (Memphis’s) and 3.1% of Tennessee’s girls and women age 10-19 became pregnant in 2008. Nationally,Centers for Disease Control figures indicate, that figure is around 3.5%—all far below the Girls Inc. claims. Further, TDH (along with the national CDC and Alan Guttmacher Institute) figures show that in 2008 and 2009, the rates of pregnancies and births among women age 10-19 had fallen to their lowest levels in decades, and perhaps ever.

“Sexually oriented” society or not, this generation of young women are much less likely to get pregnant than previous ones. Instead of publicizing these positive realities amid the harsh conditions many young women face, Girls Inc.—which professes to value “inspiring all girls to be strong, smart, and bold”—publicly misrepresented a generation of girls in Memphis and across the country as irresponsibly courting pregnancy in rising numbers due to their own bad attitudes and immature aping of sexy television shows.

Girls Inc. not only repeatedly declared that one-fourth of girls in the Frayser community were pregnant, they lent the organization’s name to a raft of media stories publicizing the false claim of 86 or 90 pregnancies at Frayser High, never once issuing a disclaimer challenging the erroneous figures. Even after repeated queries by YouthFacts and the Times, Girls Inc. refused to provide either the exact numbers of pregnancies in the Frayser community they were citing or the source of the figures. Instead, the group variously attributed them to “research” by unnamed “city” or University of Memphis or local health department researchers, none of which was true.

When we finally tracked down the University of Memphis researchers who compiled statistics on local zip codes, we found that Girls Inc. had misrepresented their findings as well. The director of the university’s Center for Research on Women said the real numbers, compiled by associate professor Phyllis Betts of the Community Building and Action program at the University of Memphis from Shelby County Health Department data, showed that in the Frayser community in 2008, 25.6% (271 of 1,056) total births were by mothers under age 20. Researchers made no claims about teen pregnancies or rates, which are very different matters. In fact, that 271 births in the community were by mothers under age 20 implies a pregnancy rate less than one-third what Girls Inc. claimed, higher than average but hardly unusual for impoverished urban communities.

So, like the “Gloucester teen pregnancy spike and pact,” in which there was no spike  and no pact, Memphis did not have “90 pregnancies at one high school” or a spectacular “teen pregnancy rate of 26 percent” in its Frayser high school or community. There was no wantonly pregnant generation, no horde of “Teen Mom”-seduced girls. It was all just grownup gossip that various interests and media spread to gain anticipated advantages, then dodged responsibility for when the numbers went bad.