Some students feel invincible to pregnancy

Program teaches teens to avoid, cope with pregnancy
Apr. 05, 2013 @ 07:08 AM

Thomasville High School senior Damion Swittenberg said many of his classmates feel invincible when it comes to pregnancy.
"They feel like pregnancy doesn't apply to them," Swittenberg said.
Every year, however, students find out that is not the case.
"I was like that before," said Estela Caseres, a THS junior who got pregnant at 16. "It's hard being in school with a baby. It's not easy being a mom and a student. I have some friends who are not my friends anymore because of pregnancy."
Statistics over the past 50 years have made one thing clear — half of all high school students are sexually active. So often a percentage of those "invincible" students find out just how vulnerable they can be when it comes to teenage pregnancy.
THS offers a pair of programs that not only teaches how to prevent teenage pregnancy but what to do in the event it does happen. The Teen Prevention Education Program (PEP) and teen parenting program have made great strides in the past decade helping young students both avoid becoming parents too early and succeeding when they do.
"We know that number hasn't changed and it tells us that number isn't likely to change," Jim Burchel, pregnancy prevention director, said.  "THS has a rich history of providing strong, medically accurate information and education to our students. All programs use evidence-based curriculum that's proven to be effective."
Teen Pep is a program that puts upperclassmen in a lead role as mentors for other students. Starting in the middle school, Teen Pep members visit with younger students in an effort to help educate them on issues related to sex. Swittenberg joined Teen Pep because of the impact the program made on his life as a middle school student. He wants to do everything he can to help a fellow classmate avoid becoming a parent too soon.
"I know quite a few students who have children," said Swittenberg. "Sometimes I see them struggle and I wish I could help. I feel bad for them. It's not a mistake, no baby is a mistake, but I feel like they could've prevented it so they wouldn't be in the situation that they are. We want to prevent people from getting to that point."
Davidson County's teen pregnancy rate has declined by 17 percent in the last three years, Burchel said, but the key is to keep the issue mainstream. Even though measurable success is being made, as teen pregnancy rates are down 50 percent nationally, the possibilities never will go away completely.
"We have new students coming in every year," Burchel said. "It's really easy for people to get lazy about the issue."
Teen parenting is offered to students like Caseres who already have a baby. The program focuses on teaching teenagers how to be good parents and balance the weight of parenthood and school. Teen parenting has three goals — prevent child neglect, avoid a second pregnancy and ensure the student graduates. Burchel said 99 percent of all students in the teen parenting program graduate, compared to 33 percent nationally. 
"We've had pretty good success with helping our teen parents make it through high school," Burchel said. "There is a significant dropout rate among teen parents. For the students who don't graduate, their odds are next to impossible for having any kind of financially successful life. A lot of our teen parents go onto to get a four-year education. The program is dynamic in terms of the work it has done to help these students graduate and not get pregnant again."
Caseres said the program and its director, Michelle Garkosha, have played huge roles in helping her adapt to being a parent at 17. She hopes others will learn from the program and avoid becoming a parent too soon.
"It has made a big difference in my life," said Caseres. "They've showed me a lot of stuff I didn't know like birth control and how to take care of a baby. I don't want my friends to have to go through what I'm going through because it's really hard. Now that I know about it, I don't want other people to go through the same process."  
THS is the only school system in Davidson County to offer such programs, Burchel said. The programs are made possible thanks to a pair of grants through Communities In Schools of Thomasville. Teen Pep offers two classes per semester with 15 to 20 students in each class. Burchel said 16 students currently are enrolled in the teen parenting class.

Staff Writer Eliot Duke can be reached at 888-3578, or duke@tvilletimes.com.