Everyone from clergy members and city officials to parents and high school athletic coaches must get involved if Alexandria is to shed its dubious distinction of having one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in Northern Virginia, according to a report released this week.
Drawing on discussions at a day-long forum in September that attracted more than 140 people, the report from the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Reducing Teen Pregnancy argues that teenagers need to be presented with clear options--how their lives will change if they have children too young.
"The advice, 'Just say no' is not enough and obviously does not work," the seven-page report says.
In 1998, Alexandria had 63 pregnancies for every 1,000 females ages 10 to 19, more than any other jurisdiction in Northern Virginia, except Fairfax City, which had 63.8 pregnancies per 1,000 females. By comparison, Arlington County had a rate of 31.4 and Fairfax County's rate was 14.4 per 1,000.
There was some good news for Alexandria: The number of pregnancies among teenage girls 17 and younger dropped somewhat, from 107 in 1997 to 96 last year. But more 18- and 19-year-olds got pregnant--201 last year, up 15 percent from 175 the previous year.
Though teenage pregnancy has long been a concern in Alexandria, the current effort stems from a special 28-member task force brought together this year by Mayor Kerry J. Donley (D) under the auspices of a grant from the Freddie Mac Foundation.
"This is the first time in a long time that the community is coming together to recognize what is a serious issue in the community," Donley said.
"I would expect the city will do more."
At the forum, the task force unveiled a television advertisement titled "Need You Now" in which a diverse group of adolescents ask adults to talk to them about sex and values. It will be aired on cable television in an effort to galvanize Alexandria residents to become more focused on the problem of early pregnancy.
"We need to make this a community issue, not just a teenage issue or a health issue, so the community will become invested in it," said Meg O'Regan, director of the Department of Human Services.
Forum participants brainstormed about ways to reach teenagers and to help them understand their choices. Stark, direct language is important, and role playing and discussion forums can be helpful, the group concluded.
"The whole idea of having a child is given too much glamour," said Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Judge Nolan Dawkins. "We need to bring [teenagers] back to reality, that children need to eat and be cared for . . . not passed off to the grandparents."
Ultimately, task force members said, teenagers need alternatives to sex and pregnancy--activities to keep them occupied, mentors to talk to and ambitions to keep them focused on the future.
"We're going to try to help the boys and girls understand that only a long-range goal is going to get them where they need to be," O'Regan said. "Short-range goals won't get them the lifestyle they want."
Although the teenage pregnancy rate remains high, Donna Kloch, who chaired a task force on the same issue in the 1980s, said she believes progress is being made.
"We've really come a long way. [In the 1980s] we were having more of a debate over abstinence versus sex education," said Kloch, an aide to Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.). "Now we're looking at different ways to communicate with kids and take into account cultural differences and age and race.
"We know that one message won't work for everyone," she said.
The task force plans to spend the next few months working with community groups, businesses and faith-based organizations to identify resources and new programs that can be focused on the problem of teenage pregnancy, Donley said. But concrete results are likely to take some time.
"It's obviously not something that is going to change overnight," he said.