TEEN pregnancy is a major challenge for today's high school guidance counselors. With more than 1 million girls between the ages of 14 and 19 getting pregnant each year, it's considered an epidemic by counselors. About half these girls have abortions; most of the rest decide to keep their babies. A few give them up for adoption.
All of a sudden a girl is faced with choosing among three very difficult options, as well as dealing with the disruption of her schooling and the leap into adulthood. Often, the school counselor plays a big role in guiding the girl through the maze of decisions.
The hardest problem, counselors say, is helping a girl tell her parents.
``When a kid comes to me, the biggest thing is: `How am I going to tell Mom?''' says Ruth Thibault, guidance counselor at Bozeman Senior High School in Bozeman, Mont.
``Sometimes we set a time schedule for her to tell her mother: I'll say to her, `At 6 o'clock you'll set the table. At 7 o'clock you'll tell her.' I call every half hour to see if they're still there.''
Sometimes the girl just can't tell her parents alone, says Mrs. Thibault, so she goes with her. It seems to work best if none of the other children in the family are around.
``Some parents get angry, but they get over it,'' Thibault says. ``It's momentary, all their dreams went right down the gutter. In 22 years, I've only had one parent that got so angry I had to take the girl out of the home. Sometimes some very good things happen because of [the pregnancy]. The hurt seems to open doors and the love and concern come through.''
Thibault gets the family involved right away, then steps back. ``Once I tell them, it's out of my hands. But I'll often stay on if they ask,'' she says.
Frequently she is asked to help; her many years of experience have provided many contacts in appropriate agencies. ``If I tell them a kid can't pay the bill, they say, `So what else is new?' They help out a lot.''
The counselor might also deal with the girl's religious adviser, the baby's father, the school nurse and psychologist, teachers, adoption agencies, family planning services, doctors, and social workers.
If the school has no special program for pregnant teens, the counseler may work out a flexible arrangement for home schooling with teachers and the administration.
Often a counselor acts as mediator between the teen and her parents if they are trying to pressure her into making a specific decision about the pregnancy. Thibault likens her role to that of a long-distance telephone operator: ``I'm a buffer between the two parties until they can get a good direct line.''
If the girl says the boy wants to be involved, Thibault brings him into the process. ``Usually afterward the girl wants nothing to do with [him]; it's almost a hate thing,'' she says.
Thibault also tries to keep the girls in school by stopping others from making humiliating remarks.
``If I can find out the student doing it, I read them the riot act,'' she says. ``I don't pull any punches. I think what comes across is that I'm really interested in helping.... People don't resent what I do.''
Thibault admits she's a maverick who charges through red tape, and she credits her supportive principal and administrative staff for her longevity in the job. Other schools take more of a team approach: At North High School in Great Neck, Long Island, the responsibility for pregnant teens is shared among the health education department, social worker, psychologist, and the counselor, says social worker Hildy Matloff.
The role of the guidance counseler in teen pregnancies varies as much as high schools do. Communities where many residents disapprove of abortion, like heavily Roman Catholic Quincy, Mass., provide much support for unwed teen mothers to keep their babies.
In areas where abortions are more tolerated, counselors play a smaller role. ``We don't even hear about it when girls get pregnant,'' says Patty Carter, a counselor at Beverly Hills (Calif.) High School. ``It's very sophisticated here. The girls tell their mothers, who then take care of it.''
More and more school districts are starting special schools for teen mothers that many guidance counselors say is helping stop the problem of girls dropping out. But such schools may indirectly contribute to the problem.
At Quincy Teen Mothers school in Massachusetts, the pregnant and parenting teens are taught a variety of business skills, get rides to and from school, attend classes only three days a week, and receive care for their babies. The problem: Some younger girls see, admire ... and imitate.
``Sometimes our success is a problem,'' says Gail Rowerdinck, director of Quincy Teen Mothers. ``We're seeing an increase in pregnancies in the middle schools.''
Counselors say it's not easy for them when a student comes in and announces that she's pregnant and planning to keep the baby.
``It's hard,'' says Judith MacLean, a counselor at Pattonville High School in Maryland Heights, Mo. ``The thing we try to do is give them emotional support, help them pick up the pieces, and go on. I tell you, I've seen girls do better after they become pregnant. It's a very maturing and sobering experience.''
Thibault says she's starting to see a change in teens' moral choices. ``Kids mock abstinence, sometimes. But ... it's OK to say no for girls. I think that trend is just beginning. I can see more and more girls thinking, `I don't want to mess up my life.'''