The generation gap and a lack of sex education may explain the high incidence of teen-age pregnancy in Washington, according to a panel of youths who discussed the issue last week before approximately 80 teen-agers and adults in the District Building.
"Parents just can't talk (about sex) with their kids, because they don't feel comfortable," said Robin Jenkins, a Cardozo High School graduate.
The panel discussion, which was intended to show the impact of teen-age pregnancy from the youths' perspective rather than adult counselors, was sponsored by the D.C. public schools, the D.C. International Year of the Child Task Force and Improved Pregnancy Outcome, a project operated by the Department of Human Resources (DHR).
Recent DHR statistics show that more than one-fifth of births in the District are to teen-age mothers. Girls as young as 11 years old are included in that figure, according to DHR.
Several youths on the panel and in the audience emphasized that communication breakdowns between parents and children cause youths' ignorance about sex, which leads to unwanted pregnancies. Following their comments, a few adults in the room gave their side of the story.
One adult said that the panelists put too much responsibility for the problem on parents.
"What about teens taking responsibility for themselves?" she asked. She said parents don't have to teach their children about sex, but are only required to give them food and shelter.
"That's all my parents (gave me)," replied panelist Antoinette Grady, a Woodrow Wilson High School senior. "(But) it's their job to clothe us, feed us, talk to us and show us things. . . . If it weren't for my great-grandmother . . . I'd be like some little tramp on the street." Applause and cheers from teen-agers followed her comments.
Some discussion dealt with youths who intentionally become pregnant. One adult said that some teen-agers "want to have babies, like their friends." She said they know about contraceptives, but "they just don't care."
Another adult, who counsels pregnant teen-agers, said that many have an unrealistic picture about the cost and effort of raising a child. She described how difficult it is for a young mother to get an education and a job without burdening her parents with baby-sitting.
"Most (teen-agers) think they know what they're getting into," she said. "They%I don't know what they're getting into."%I
One young mother replied, "Im a teen-ager, and I have a baby. I think I'm doing an excellent job. I got a job, I'm taking care of my baby, and I knew what I was getting into."
Several panelists stressed that youths need more information about sex and birth control. If they can't get this information at home, it should be available elsewhere, they said. Otherwise, contraceptives may not be used or may be used improperly.
"You don't have to be a tramp to have two or three kids," said one young mother in the audience. "You can make a mistake one time or two times and have kids like I did."
"Most people who are sexually active use no protection -- none at all," said Thay C. Johnson, a Coolidge High School junior.
Several students spoke favorably about the "peer counseling" program, which is sponsored by Planned Parenthood. Under this program, which is offered in some high schools in the District, Planned Parenthood staff members come into the schools to train students about sex and contraceptives. Students who complete the training then informally counsel other students.
Tracy Spann, a Cardozo senior who participated in the program, said that the program should be expanded.
Vanessa Jackson, a former peer counselor and recent graduate of Cardozo, said that some teen-agers are unaware of family planning clinics and sources of contraceptives.
Peer counseling is aimed at reaching youths who are unwilling to go to a family planning center, which is a problem for males especially.
It takes a lot of guts for a young male to go to someone else for help," said Steve Smith, a Roosevelt High School graduate. "You (family planning counselors) have to go to them."
Vernon Rogers, 18, a summer intern at the Men's Center, a family planning service, said he often faces the problem of getting young men to seek information. "Because of a stereotypical idea conveyed by their friends, mentally it is harder" for males to ask questions about sex, he said. "They think they should know it already."