Holyoke City Council Focuses on City’s High Teen Pregnancy Rate

HOLYOKE – The Redevelopment Committee of the Holyoke City Council continued their efforts to establish recommendations to lower the city’s teen pregnancy rate that is the highest in the state.

The committee, along with social services and healthcare professionals, met in city council chambers last Thursday night to review a draft recommendation authored by City Councilor Elaine Pluta. 

From the last survey conducted in 2007, Holyoke’s teen pregnancy rate is 95.4 per 1000 births. In the same survey, Springfield placed second in the state with 84.3 per 1000 births.

According to the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, overall, the state has one of the lowest rates of teen pregnancies nationally with 25 per 1000 births, which makes the numbers from Holyoke more alarming.

It has been a two-year effort by Pluta and the committee to draft the recommendations. The current draft calls for the city council, the mayor’s office, the school committee, the school department, the religious community, and other organizations to first recognize that the crisis exists and that it should be of prime importance to all stakeholders.

The recommendations calls for representatives from those various interest to form a citywide task force that would meet monthly to formulate policies to combat the high rate  in the city.

It further recommends that teens, both male and female, should be included to help solve the crisis and perform outreach to their peers either by speaking to them directly or through various media formats. 

Besides the discussion on teen pregnancy and prevention, sexual and reproductive health education came to the forefront and whether those topics be included in future discussions and in future recommendations. 

Holyoke ranks high statewide in sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV and chlamydia.

While some form of sex education is taught in the school system, most agreed that a comprehensive approach needs to be implemented not only in the classroom, but to those teens who are no longer in the system. 

It was also widely agreed upon that while abstinence does have a place in the curriculum, an abstinence only curriculum does little to reduce teen pregnancies or reduce infection rates.

City Councilor Rebecca Lisi asked that recommendation’s opening statement be put in the positive or the affirmative and include an “umbrella” of issues not only related to teen pregnancy but reproductive health and sexuality that “is vital to the prevention of teen pregnancy, STDs, HIV and AIDS.” 

She added that the city should recognize the problem and speak in a unified voice for a call to action. 

Pluta agreed that the document needs to be refined and more specific, but asked if there is a place later on to include those topics and keep the focus of the recommendations on teen pregnancy.

Attendee Mary Fago, Director of the Health Centers in Holyoke schools, sees the realities of both teen pregnancy and STDs in the schools. The teen clinics include Holyoke High School, Dean Tech, and Peck Middle School. She said the health center tested around 85 students for chlamydia of whom eight tested positive for the disease.

“They don’t know about chlamydia,” said Fago when a teen is first learns of the diagnosis. “Usually when I’m testing for chlamydia I have to explain to them what it is that I’m testing. Most of the kids don’t know of it.” She said maybe 30 percent of the students have a general idea, but a vast majority are unaware of the chlamydia.

Fago, along with her fellow health professionals, want to see a comprehensive approach to sexual and reproductive health education in the schools so that teens have enough information to make responsible choices. 

“Kids don’t now where to begin to even think about making a decision. And they’re not good planners, they tend to respond to the moment,” said Fago, “I’d like kids to have the equipment to stop, think about what could happen, make a decision about that’s best for them in their lives.”

She agreed with what one speaker said during the meeting, that some parents talk to their kids about sex when it is too late or after when a pregnancy occurs.

Fago said meetings and more open discussion about sexual and reproductive education will lead to better outcomes. “Teenage pregnancy and the STD rate in this city is a very complex issue,” said Fago. “One thing isn’t going to solve it. There’s not one method that going to fix it. All of us have to work together. The more ideas we have, the more energy have to do it, the more we include kids, the more informed we make kids, the better it is.”

Afterwards Pluta said the original intent of the meeting was to review the recommendations and to finalize the document. The committee will instead review the new ideas put forth by the attendees and go over the new draft in a month.

“We want to put some teeth into those final recommendations, so that when they put the recommendations into place that there will be some action,” said Pluta. She said there is a gap between the current curriculum and the implementation component that is supposed to reach the teen population.

 “I think that it is something that we have to get together with the school committee and determine what are those gaps and get them to bring on people who know about these programs, know about these situations and bring them on board and get more information into them so that they can bring that down into the classrooms,” said Pluta. 

She said with the high teen pregnancy and STD rates in the city, it is obvious teens are engaged in sexual relations. “Because of the rates, whatever they’re doing now is not working and that they need to expand their horizon on what they’re going to be teaching the kids and that abstinence isn’t working. What works? What is working? There’s plenty of programs across the country that are working and have been successful already,” said Pluta.

The committee plans to meet again in early-April.

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