The students who work on the yearbook at Mesa High School wanted to include a few pages featuring teen parents, since they figured those kids may not have ended up in any photos otherwise. Pregnant and parenting teens probably didn’t have enough time to participate in other school events, like the homecoming dance. “We thought it would be a good idea to put them on the page where they could be seen,” a student on the yearbook staff explained to a Fox News affiliate.
But other residents in the Arizona town didn’t see it that way. The two-page spread — which features several student parents speaking honestly about the joys and challenges of raising their children — ended up sparking quite a controversy after the yearbooks landed in students’ hands.
Angry parents called the high school principal to ask why those photos ended up in the yearbook. Most of them expressed concern that the feature was glamorizing teen pregnancy, or encouraging other kids to become sexually active.
“It makes it look cute, and like I’m doing so great… It doesn’t really convey the reality of what they’re going through,” Shelly Adams, one mother of a Mesa High student, told 12 News. “My main message is wait, wait for the right time, which would not be when you’re in high school,” Grace Edwards, whose granddaughter attends the school, added.
The editorial board at The Arizona Republic also weighed in, arguing that “a two-page spread glamorizing a life-altering mistake risks normalizing dysfunction” and accusing the yearbook of making teen pregnancy seem just like chess club.
The yearbook photos didn’t just provoke a backlash among adults; some students criticized them, too. “There are other kids who have worked harder for more and better accomplishments — and they have a whole page for their kids?” Gregory Gomez, a student who is taking honors classes at Mesa High School while juggling a job, complained.
While officials at Mesa Public Schools have said that they are “100 percent behind” the teen parents who want to continue their education, and have no plans to make a new policy for what’s allowed in the yearbook, a representative for the district did suggest that parenting isn’t a valuable accomplishment for high schoolers. “A yearbook is to commemorate the achievements of the students, particularly the senior class,” spokesperson Helen Hollands said. “Probably this would not fall into that category.”
This is hardly the first school district to struggle with whether to allow pregnant and parenting teens in the yearbook. Last year, a North Carolina teen’s photo was banned from her yearbook because she posed with her young son. Similarly, two pregnant high schoolers in Michigan were told they couldn’t display their baby bumps in their photos.
In general, teen parents are often met with shame and stigma — personally blamed for society’s downfall, despite the fact that they’re subject to bigger structural issues that are largely out of their control, like insufficient access to sexual health resources and economic inequality. Since May is National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month, this time of the year typically signals an uptick in these type of negative messages about how having a baby will ruin high schoolers’ lives, and by extension, our country’s economy.
But that type of approach can be harmful for the teens who are doing their best to juggle their children with their academics, like the ones featured in Mesa High’s yearbooks. That’s why, after a round of offensive teen pregnancy prevention campaigns last May, a group of young mothers banded together to form #NoTeenShame. They say they want to change the conversation around young parenting “to a non-stigmatizing and non-shaming approach, while highlighting the importance of comprehensive sex ed.”
In a recent interview with ThinkProgress, one of the young women who spearheaded #NoTeenShame, Gloria Malone, explained that stigmatizing and blaming teen parents doesn’t work because “young mothers can feel like all the hard work they’re doing is in vain… We can’t forget that we’re talking about humans who have feelings, and emotions, and families.”