Air date: October 19, 1999
The Lost Children of Rockdale County
Produced and Directed by
Rachel Dretzin Goodman
and Barak Goodman
Written by Rachel Dretzin Goodman
NARRATOR: On May 20, 1999, a month to the day after the Columbine massacre, there was another school shooting, this one in an Atlanta suburb called Conyers.
POLICE OFFICIAL: A student entered the commons area and began shooting.
NARRATOR: Across the country, everyone wondered all over again what was wrong with our children.
1st COMMENTATOR: Something is wrong, in addition to guns and violent movies and computer games and-
2nd COMMENTATOR: You're dealing with highly volatile, emotional teenagers.
NARRATOR: The news crews moved on after a few days, but FRONTLINE's cameras had been living among the teenagers of Conyers for months before the shooting and had come to know a deeper story, a story of lonely kids desperate to belong-
AMY: I felt like I wasn't pretty enough or I wasn't smart enough.
NARRATOR: -of a secret world of sex-
KEVIN: One guy would do it with her one night. the next night someone else has her, the next night someone else has her.
NARRATOR: -with the gravest of consequences-
CYNTHIA NOEL, R.N., Rockdale County Public Health Dept.: We saw syphilis, we saw genital warts, we saw herpes.
NARRATOR: -of disconnection and regrets.
CATHERINE, Kevin's Mother: I think what it is, is we've lost control of our children.
NARRATOR: This is the story of the lost children of Rockdale County.
Twenty-five miles east of Atlanta, Georgia's Interstate 20 reaches Rockdale County and its only town, Conyers. Just off the exit is a mile-long strip of fast food restaurants and chain stores which serves as Conyers's downtown.
Most people here live in newly built subdivisions with names like Ivy Bluff, Annesbrook and Martha's Vineyard, carved out of what not long ago was pastoral farmland. Rockdale County is the outer edge of what has been called the fastest growing settlement in human history, the rings of suburbs surrounding greater Atlanta.
Most children here go to one of three high schools: Heritage, Salem or Rockdale. Fattened with tax dollars, they are among the best in the state. It was a surprise, then, when something happened among a number of the teenagers here that revealed a life unknown to their parents.
It was the spring of 1996. Most people in Conyers were focused on the upcoming Atlanta summer Olympics. The town had been chosen to host the equestrian events and had built a brand-new horse park for the occasion. Few people therefore noticed a small article appearing in the local paper. It reported an outbreak of syphilis among some 20 people, most of them teenagers, and it hinted at the possibility that many more had been infected.
KATHLEEN TOOMEY, M.D., Dir., Georgia Div. of Public Health: I actually called my colleagues, and at the time I said, "Hey, you're not going to believe this. We have an outbreak of syphilis in a middle-class, white- largely white community, a suburb of Atlanta. Worse, it's right near one of the venues of the Olympics."
NARRATOR: Kathleen Toomey is the director of Georgia's Division of Public Health.
KATHLEEN TOOMEY: What was unusual about this particular outbreak is that it focused around a group of young girls. They were described to me as almost cherubic in some of their characteristics, and again, very young, some of them 13 years of age.
CYNTHIA NOEL: This was so totally out of line with everything that we had ever seen. Teenagers, especially young white females, do not get syphilis. But in our case they did.
NARRATOR: Cynthia Noel, a nurse at the county's public health department, was one of the first to discover the outbreak when an adolescent boy appeared complaining of symptoms of syphilis. Noel questioned the boy about his sexual contacts.
CYNTHIA NOEL: One of the girls that he had been with was actually our key to our entire epidemic. She had had numerous sexual partners, and when we brought her in, had a positive blood. And we started, really, with her finding the other partners, and as it broadened into bigger and bigger circles.
NARRATOR: Noel and her colleagues constructed a chart tracing the sexual histories of each infected teenager. As the investigation progressed, the number of contacts named by the kids multiplied and multiplied again.
CYNTHIA NOEL: What we were told by a lot of the kids was that there was a lot of sexual activities with multiple partners, a lot of risky sexual activities. These girls were not just having regular intercourse, they were having every kind of possible sexual act that you could do.
NARRATOR: State health officials, fearing a widening epidemic, called in Claire Sterk, a Dutch-born professor at Emory University's School of Public Health. It was to Sterk that some of the children began to reveal the details of their sexual activity.
Prof. CLAIRE STERK, Emory Univ. School of Public Health: It was not uncommon, when all the young people would get together, to engage in group sex. There was group sex going on in terms of one guy having sex with one of the girls, and then the next guy having sex with the same girl. There was group sex going on in terms of one girl having sex with multiple male partners at the same time, multiple females having sex with each other at the same time. I would say that the only type of group sex that I did not hear about in this overall context was group sex between just guys.
NARRATOR: In the end, 17 young people tested positive for syphilis. More than 200 others were exposed and treated. Approximately 50 of them reported being involved in extreme sexual behavior.
CYNTHIA NOEL: You don't expect to see a 14-year-old with 20, 30, 40, 50 or 100 sex partners. You expect that of someone who is more into the line of being a prostitute or something. And these girls were not homeless. They were not abused in any way. These were just normal, everyday, regular kids.
NARRATOR: Cindy owns an antique store in Conyers. At the height of the epidemic, her daughter, Nicole, was among the 200 young people called into the health department to be tested. Cindy went with her.
INTERVIEWER: How did you feel when you heard that she had to go into the health department?
CINDY: Oh! She should never have to do that. But I wanted to be there with her. I felt like it would be a traumatic experience. It wasn't. We walked in there, and I'd never- I mean, it was like hitting a brick wall. Here are these kids that are high-fiving each other, laughing. I don't- I do not believe a single one of them realized what they're dealing with.
NICOLE: We thought it was funny, thought it was- "Oh, you got syphilis! Oh!" You know? I mean it wasn't no, like, the kooties game little kids play, you know?
NARRATOR: Nicole is Cindy's daughter. She was 15 at the time of the outbreak.
NICOLE: They gave everybody the shot if you had it or not before you got tested, so you never knew who had it or not. Now, if I look back at pamphlets and it's syphilis, "Oh, my God." But then it was just something else we got over.
NARRATOR: It all began, investigators would determine, with a loosely-knit group of friends. In many ways, they were indistinguishable from other teenagers in Conyers. Most drove nice cars, lived in new homes, and on weekend nights gathered on the strip looking for something to do.
BETH ROSS, Dir. Counseling, Rockdale County Schools: It was a great cross-section, just every imaginable profile of a child within this group of students. It was not aimed at a child who had a car or didn't have a car, not aimed at a child who was a good student versus a bad student, a child who was a football player versus a band participant. It was a cross-section of children.
NARRATOR: Not all of them knew each other well. Not all would be exposed to syphilis, and not all would take part group sex. But they were all caught up in the strange events of the spring and summer of 1996.
NICOLE: It was always a group of us. Well, we never did anything except what we wanted to do, which was hang out. We wanted them to think, I mean, "Look at them kids," or whatever. We liked the stares. We started dressing big baggy clothes, big, like, wild T-shirts and stuff. And the girls would wear dark, dark lipstick and eyeliner, just to get stares or attention or something. Not to be normal, maybe.
NARRATOR: For a while, some of them made themselves conspicuous in town, shoplifting, blaring music and defying the County's midnight curfew for teenagers under 16.
NICOLE: We'd ride around in Conyers at 3:00 in the morning in somebody's parents' car and never think about getting caught. We never thought about consequences back then.
AMY: I think one of the reasons that they liked me was because I had a car, and a lot of them didn't have a car. And so they called me up a lot and said, "Come pick me up." And that was a big mistake because I ended up driving everybody around everywhere.
NARRATOR: Amy grew up in Rockdale County. By the time she reached high school, she had fallen out with her friends. Gradually, she began to new ones.
AMY: I guess they just gave me the friendship that I just was looking for. If we went to somewhere, like out to eat or something, just to get something to eat, I would always try to get out and see other people and just say "Ha, ha. Look who I'm with."
NARRATOR: One kid many of them wanted to be seen with was D.J., a 14-year-old known for his charm and a streak of recklessness.
D.J.: I didn't really want to be notorious. I wanted to be popular. I wanted to be famous. I wanted people to like me. I didn't want people to hate me. I always tried to be the likable one. And I could be.
NARRATOR: D.J. had money and little supervision at home. His parents were divorced, and he had moved in with a family friend, whom he called his godfather.
D.J.: My father is a good businessman - my godfather. He would buy me anything and just give me all the money I wanted, anytime I needed it. Whatever I wanted, he'd buy it for me.
NARRATOR: Kevin was a good friend of D.J.'s at the time.
KEVIN: He'd have a party of, like, 200 people. Everybody'd get drunk, spend the night, swim in the pool. His dad didn't care what he did.
NARRATOR: There were lots of parties back then, anywhere that adults weren't around. The kids would meet in empty homes all over Conyers, sometimes even in rented motel rooms. Kevin did not take part in their activities, but he knew about them.
KEVIN: There was a lot of sex going on then. Like, one girl would come in the group and she'd be passed around, or one guy would go in the girls' group and get passed around.
INTERVIEWER: Passed around?
KEVIN: Yeah, they'd just- one guy would do it with her one night. The next night somebody else has her. The next night somebody else has her.
INTERVIEWER: Was this a game?
KEVIN: Pretty much.
NICOLE: There was a lot of sex then, about 16 years old- a lot of sex. We would fight. There was about four of the guys that drove BMWs and had everything, and those were- all the girls wanted to be with those guys, so we would all fight over them or do whatever. And then you'd have sex with them, so you'd be, like, "Yeah, I had sex with your man last night," da, da, da, do. And that's- I think that's how the syphilis came about. It was everybody just having sex with everybody.
D.J.: Actually, I mean, it was a social thing, but it was more of an underground railroad thing. Everybody was secretively having sex with everybody, and everybody knew it. The teenagers knew it. But the parents never knew.
Prof. CLAIRE STERK: A lot of the adolescents had parents who worked, were at home alone, had parents who put in 40, 60, 80-hour work weeks and were doing that to insure that all the resources that they wanted to give to their children were available.
BETH ROSS, Dir. Counseling, Rockdale County Schools: The activities they were involved in, whether it would be sexual or otherwise, the majority of their behavior was taking place between right after school and right before parents came home from work, like between 3:00 and 7:00, and some of it late at night then, after midnight, after the parents would go to sleep. [www.pbs.org: More on the state's investigation]
NICOLE: Most of my friends' parents were not the kind of parents that really cared. They cared what went on, but if it interfered with their lives they didn't really- wouldn't- they didn't want to bother with it.
Peggy Cooper, now retired, was a middle school guidance counselor. She reported to the health department that she was hearing stories of late-night sexual games involving kids as young as 12 years old.
PEGGY COOPER: My students were talking to me about the parties that they were having on weekends, and there was one place in particular that they had lots of privacy. The parents were off and gone. And they said that they were watching the Playboy Channel in the girl's bedroom. And there would be, like, 10 or 12 of them up there.
And so I said, "Well, is everybody watching it?" "Oh, yeah. They're all watching it." And so one of the little guys goes, "And we're getting pretty good at it, too." I said, "Good at what?" So he said, "Well, we- you have to do- the game is you have to imitate what the Playboy people are doing."
And one of them said, "And sometimes it's all mixed up, too. You know, it's just like- there may be three or four of us at one time. And it doesn't matter if you're two guys or two girls or a girl and a guy. It doesn't matter. You just have to do what they're doing."
NICOLE: There was this one time when we were all at a party. There's about 30, 40 people there. And this one girl, she- they had been drinking. They were pretty drunk. And she, like, was going to have- she told everybody she was going to have sex with almost every guy that was there.
And her and her friend went back in the bedroom. Her friend had sex with her boyfriend and came out. And then the girl stayed in there, and it was, like, all the guys lined up. And it was like they were from the door to the front door. I mean, it was a lot of people.
And we brought out the bag of condoms we got from the health department, passed them out. And, like, two guys would go in there, you know, and they were having sex with her. And they were, like, having oral sex and, you know, sex. And all the guys that- most of the guys that were there went in the room and had sex with her.
And then she came out. She was- she thought it was the coolest thing, just that she had just had sex with all them. Or maybe they thought she was cool or whatever. Then she was like, bleeding, and her hair had cum all in it, and it was all over her clothes.
INTERVIEWER: Did any of the girls describe the sex as pleasurable?
Prof. CLAIRE STERK: Initially, they described the sex as pleasurable, and pleasurable in terms of it being physically pleasurable, but also psychologically, like, this was a initiation into the next step of their life. It was part of their development that was taking place. Over time, however, very few of the girls talked about the sex in terms of it being pleasurable at all. It became something that was painful, that in some cases they couldn't even remember what they did anymore. So it became very negative.
INTERVIEWER: Do you ever think they might have done it because they wanted to be accepted by the boys?
D.J.: I don't think it was a real pressure issue. I mean, it might have been for them. Subliminally, it might have been. Subconsciously, it might have been. But it really- I mean, there really wasn't any pressure to. It was more of- they just gave in, really.
INTERVIEWER: How did the guys in general treat the girls?
AMY: They were mean to them a lot. They treated them like they were just- I don't know, not trash, but not very, like, respectable. And the girls seemed not to care. I don't know why. I guess they just- I think most of it was the alcohol that they were buying because the guys always bought alcohol. They just- they knew that we would like it, and so- but they didn't treat us like we were anything real important.
INTERVIEWER: You never got angry at them?
AMY: I did a few times. But I couldn't really do anything about it because they just- they wouldn't care. They'd just tell me to go home or something.
INTERVIEWER: Why didn't you?
AMY: I don't know. I don't know. I just- I would be alone then.
NARRATOR: Amy lives with her parents in a spacious home in Princeton Way, one of Rockdale's wealthier subdivisions. Her father supervises security at a state university. Her mother, a school teacher, did not want to be interviewed.
FRANK, Amy's Father: We was a very close family when they was younger. Still are. I think we spent a lot of time together. Gosh, vacations- we went on vacations till she was 16. We was really involved in softball, she and I. And I coached her from the time she was 7, 8 years old until she was 18. And we spent a lot of time together that way on the softball field. During those years, it was just- it was great. I couldn't ask for a better kid.
INTERVIEWER: You were close?
FRANK: Yes. Yes, we was. Probably not as close as we should be, but we was close.
AMY: I was good. I was really good. Anything I did wrong, I would get scared, and I would have to tell my mom. "Oh, no!" And I was, like, "Oh, no! I'm bad." But it was real funny. I don't know why. Everything just changed. It just changed.
NARRATOR: Amy's life began to change in middle school, when she was about 13.
AMY: In 7th grade, I had this one best friend, and she was, like, my best friend ever since I was little. And then she just- she got new friends, and she didn't like me anymore, so- she kind of told me she didn't want me to sit next to her at lunch and all this stuff. And I felt kind of rejected, so- then I didn't have very many friends throughout middle school after that.
NARRATOR: Amy spent 9th grade on the cheerleading squad. In the 10th grade, she was cut from the team.
AMY: After that, it just sort of- I felt depressed a lot. I was just real unhappy. And I was okay outside of school, but I just- I didn't have any kind of friends at school. And I guess I kind of picked the wrong friends outside of school, too.
INTERVIEWER: When you came home from being out with all these kids and you saw your parents, what did you think?
AMY: I felt ashamed because I was just- I was, like, "Oh!" You know? I've been around some bad people, and coming home, and I would just- a lot of times, I would try just to go down to my room and not have to talk to them. A lot of times I would be high when I came home, so I really tried not to talk to them or look at them or anything.
FRANK: I knew it was possible that it was happening, you know, that she was sexually active. But we didn't sit down and talk about the diseases and dangers that are out there, either. And I know it's there. I guess we could have talked more about what she was doing then, and we didn't. You know, we didn't talk that much about what was happening when she was not with us.
I'm not a George Bush fan, but when he talked about the family unit and the breakdown of the a family unit, that's the way it is. And as much- I do as much to destroy it as anybody else. We got T.V.'s in every room of the house. I watch my programs. My wife watches her programs in another room in the house. You know, the kids watch it or play on their Ataris, their video games.
You mentioned a while ago about the time we spent together. Yeah, we would spend time together, but much of the time that we had in the house together was not together.
NARRATOR: Amy's life had begun to revolve around her new group of friends.
AMY: They would buy me alcohol, and so I was happy for a little while.
INTERVIEWER: You liked to drink?
AMY: I used to, yeah.
AMY: Because I always just got really happy, and I was always a different person when I was drunk.
INTERVIEWER: What were you like?
AMY: I was real outgoing, and I would just talk to everybody and love everybody, "Oh, I love you!" when I was drunk, but- it was just totally different from when I'm sober.
NICOLE: When you're that young, you, like- you do- to be cool, you know, you do some things that you don't want to do, but sometimes you have to. It's not like you have to, but-
INTERVIEWER: It's there.
PEGGY COOPER: You know, children, when they come into this world, want attention, and they'll get good attention as long as they can get it. If they can't get good attention, they'll get bad attention because the worst thing in the world to them is to have no attention. No attention is to lead a solitary life, finally.
D.J.: I never- I felt like I never had anybody. I've always been alone. I've never had the family that would be there for you, the friends that would be there for you. I always felt like I was out in the cold.
NARRATOR: D.J.'s parents were still together when they moved the family to Conyers.
D.J.: When they started, they were both- my father was a policeman. They were, you know, the ideal couple. My mother was Miss Arkansas, and they were both very happy. And as things turned, my father just- just everything started going for the worse.
NARRATOR: D.J.'s father left when he was 9. His mother, he says, fell apart.
D.J.: My father was the only thing she ever had, and her kids. And after he left, she didn't know how to deal with herself. I didn't even feel she was around. I couldn't deal with people my age who I didn't feel they could understand. And so I sort of- I attached to people that were older than me.
NARRATOR: D.J. came to rely on his new friends and says he was anxious to impress them.
D.J.: It was just, you know, we were like brothers. We would stick up for each other. We wouldn't let anything come between us. That was the closest thing I ever had to a friendship. Me, I was always - since I was so young, I always had to prove myself, so I did. Most of the time I probably did the most drastic things, not to actually do anything, but a lot of it came down to violence.
NARRATOR: One day when he was 14, D.J. and his friend, Joe, made a plan.
D.J.: We had a plan. We wanted to kill everybody, everybody in the world. We wanted to just- we wanted to try to set the record of the most murders you could ever imagine. So we got really drunk. I got really, really drunk, drank, like- together, we drank, like, a gallon of vodka, got really smashed.
We're hanging around all our friends, and there was just one guy that I really couldn't stand. I couldn't- just couldn't stand him at all. He was just the biggest- and he said something to me that pissed me off, said something horrible. And I just grabbed him, grabbed him by the back of his head, and I just stabbed him in the spine and threw him on the ground. And he was just sitting there, and he was bleeding.
And he gets up, and I went to grab his neck, just to- like, I wanted to cut his throat just to make sure it was over with, to kill him.
INTERVIEWER: How did it feel to stab him?
D.J.: At the time, it was- at the time, I- I- it felt great.
NARRATOR: The boy survived, and D.J. and his friend were never prosecuted.
INTERVIEWER: What kind of person was he?
KEVIN: The bad-ass. He was younger than everybody, but every- nobody would do anything to him because everybody was afraid of his friends.
MIGUEL: When D.J. was around me, he act totally different from when he was around his other friends. He felt like he could do anything to anybody and talk to them in any kind of way. And I- and they were scared of saying anything to him because they were afraid if they say something to D.J., then we were going to- then I'm going to send somebody to beat them or whatever.
NARRATOR: D.J.'s friend, Miguel, has been a focus of the Rockdale Police for years, in and out of jail for petty crimes. The more time he spent behind bars, the greater his appeal to both boys and girls around Conyers.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me about Miguel.
AMY: Miguel. He was, like, the worst guy I ever met. He was, like, sort of the leader of this little gang thing. And everybody just looked up to him for some reason. I think that everybody was just scared of him.
D.J.: Miguel was- he was like my big brother. He was like my older brother. At the time, he was the most- I don't know. He was- everyone was terrified of him. So for him to be my big brother, for everybody to be then terrified of me.
MIGUEL: He was a younger kid. He was about 13, and I was about 17, 18. And usually, you know, an older kid wouldn't hang around nobody that young. But D.J. started- just started giving everybody money just to be a friend. And back then, I didn't have no job or nothing, and he would give me this money. And the money was- you know, I ain't going to lie, the money was good. He's my best friend.
NARRATOR: Miguel and some of his friends, who came from a poorer section of the county, blended into the group.
D.J.: We tried to terrify Conyers. We wanted to show everybody in Conyers that you couldn't hurt us. There's nothing you could do. It doesn't matter what you do. If you wanted to try, we would- we would better you. You know, we would completely overcome you and we would try to defeat you in any way.
NICOLE: We all felt invincible. Nobody could do anything to us. We could do whatever we wanted to do. And we pretty much did everything we wanted to do.
MIGUEL: There's one party I went to. It was, like, a whole bunch of girls and whole bunch of guys, and they were just sitting around drinking, having a good time at the party and smoking weed. And around 12:00 or 1:00 o'clock, when everybody get ready to go to sleep, everybody just get in the room and girls start having sex with other girls, and guys start having sex with other girls, and it just- everybody just got in one room to have sex.
INTERVIEWER: All together.
MIGUEL: Yeah. Girls having sex with girls. Except guys. The guys don't have sex with each other, though. Ain't cool.
NARRATOR: Most of the girls were white, but the boys were racially mixed. This was yet another boundary the kids chose to cross.
Prof. CLAIRE STERK, Emory Univ. School of Public Health: There is a taboo that has not disappeared regarding sexual activity between African-American men and white women. Here we're talking about white adolescents. So in many ways, what was happening here was that the girls not only were challenging community norms by being sexually active, but were challenging those even further by engaging, at least part of the time, in sexual activity with African-American males.
INTERVIEWER: You liked breaking rules?
NICOLE: Yeah. It was- it was, like- it wasn't really I liked breaking rules, it was just I didn't care. Your rules meant nothing to me. If they didn't benefit me, I had nothing to do with it. That's really how I felt then.
Prof. CLAIRE STERK: One of the things that was interesting about this group was that there was not necessarily a clearly defined leader. There was nobody around who fulfilled that role. So nobody stepped in, and the group kind of kept moving on without having anybody around who could pull the brakes.
In some ways, the "sandwich" was the point of escalation. It was the point when a number of them became really, really scared. What I understand "sandwich" to be is one girl having oral sex with one of the men, having vaginal sex with another man and having anal sex with a third man. So she literally is smushed in between three guys, and the only way that I've heard it described by some of the teens is a "sandwich."
AMY: One time I was at my house, and there was one- just one of my friends was there with me. We were baby-sitting my nephew, and we got both got really drunk. And then this guy called us and he said, "Can we come over?" And we said, "Sure."
And then there was about four of them, four guys. I guess two other guys told- asked us, me and my friend, to go upstairs with them. And we said, "Okay." You know, I didn't really know what was going on. Everything was sort of- you know, well, we were just wanting to do whatever they wanted us to do, and so-
It kind of got nasty in the room. We were doing some- a few things. And I had forgotten about my nephew.
NARRATOR: Later, the little boy spoke to his mother of what he had seen.
AMY: He said that he just thought that they were trying to kill me. He said, "I thought they were trying to kill her" because he was, what, about maybe 3 or 4 years old. And I just felt so bad. She said, "I don't know if I want you to be around him anymore." And I just- I just cried and cried and cried all night. I didn't know what to do. I was just mortified. So that- that I regret really a lot.
FRANK, Amy's Father: I'm not a- I'm not a hard person. I got a lot of feelings that I try to hide a lot of times. I've gone through a lot of tears, and I've cried actually openly, not in front of anybody, going through this. But what can you do about it? You know, you can't lock a kid in a closet, 13, 14, 15 years old.
No, they don't want their parents to go with them and their friends, and you've got to understand that. You've just got to hope that you've instilled the kind of values in them or that you've taught them the kind of values, what is important, and when they get that old, they will respect that.
And I think Amy possibly did. And she knew that. And that was probably something that was really tearing her apart in that she knew how we
felt and the pressures that we put on her. But then to be accepted, you know, it had to be just tearing her apart.
INTERVIEWER: How did you feel afterwards at the time? Did you think about it afterwards?
AMY: I just felt really sad and angry at myself because I knew I couldn't change anything about it. But I just had wished it would never happen after it always happened.
INTERVIEWER: But it would happen again?
NARRATOR: By April of 1996, Rockdale County health officials had contained the syphilis outbreak. In some ways, they felt fortunate not only to have caught the disease early, but to have uncovered the behavior that lay behind it.
CYNTHIA NOEL, R.N., Rockdale County Public Health Dept.: What we had was a flag in the respect of syphilis. Without that, we would not have really known what was happening here and the extent of the sexual activity of the kids. It's only when a disease that we can track comes into play that we can actually see a pattern. And in this case, we had syphilis, where we could follow the numbers and follow the trail. If we had not had that, we would not know.
NARRATOR: In the spring of 1997, the Rockdale County health Department initiated a town meeting at a local school.
MODERATOR: [parents meeting] And we realize going in from the very start, that there may be questions that you want to ask that you don't necessarily want to stand up and ask. So we've provided you with an index card, and you'll be able to write-
NARRATOR: A panel of community experts - health and law enforcement officials, school counselors, and a local minister - were brought in to discuss with parents the events that had led to the outbreak.
KATHLEEN TOOMEY, M.D., Dir., Georgia Div. of Public Health: And I remember it vividly because I've never had such an audience for any talk I've ever given, any public talk. This is an audience, an auditorium full of skeptical parents.
[parents meeting] There are some things that I'm going to tell you today that probably you won't like-
And I remember when I put up the slide that showed that interaction, the sex partners, and the partners of the partners, it looked like a ball of yarn. There was actually a gasp from the audience and this total disbelief that this could have happened in their community.
RANDY POYNTER, Former Rockdale County Commissioner: [parents meeting] The only way we're going to stop it is to do exactly what you folks are doing here tonight, coming here and being aware of it and making sure-
NARRATOR: Randy Poynter was the county commissioner at the time.
RANDY POYNTER: I know when the parents were approached about this, they could not believe their kids had been part of it. I mean- and I understand because people I would consider good friends of mine, people that I would consider just like my wife and I, with the same values and the same habits and the same, you know, lifestyles, were having kids that were having- you know, were involved in this.
MODERATOR: [parents meeting] [reading question] "Would it be out of the question to initiate a class on the Gospel to only kids who were interested and had the permission of their parents?"
Dr. KATHLEEN TOOMEY: What was so extraordinary to me is these parents started looking for externally who to blame. "This has caused this," "T.V. has caused that," "External groups have caused this." But few of them - none of them that I can recall - ever looked to themselves. And the minister turned to me and said, "They don't see. It's them. It's the parents. They have done this. The kids don't talk to them."
What was extraordinary to me, a year after this outbreak, was here was a community in total denial about what happened. [www.pbs.org: More on the community reaction]
NARRATOR: In the end, the syphilis outbreak had come and gone, leaving barely a ripple behind. But some believe that the community, by regarding the outbreak as an anomaly, had missed a larger point about all its kids.
CLAIRE STERK: I would say it's very sad because there are so many lessons we could have learned from this. And part of me feels that we're not picking up on all those lessons and still leave adolescents hanging there, forcing them to take care of themselves when we know that they're not always able to do that.
WES BONNER, Pastor: They're coming from middle class homes, upper middle class homes. They have so many things, you know, every convenience. They all have a cell phone, a pager, you know, anything that they need. But what they're looking for is, you know, "Where's the road? Where's the path? I don't see that. You know, everything's so spread out. I don't know, you know, where to go."
NARRATOR: The children of Rockdale County grow up in a community steeped in Christianity. Every Sunday, the more than 100 churches are packed with congregants, while the streets are nearly empty. A few of the churches here have seen a need to reach out to teenagers. Wes Bonner is a pastor at Rockdale County's Shepherd's Door Church.
WES BONNER: We felt there was a generation that needed to know where they should be going and needed to know what to do. And there wasn't all- there wasn't a lot going on for young people in this community that we saw when we first came here.
BRITT BONNER: [Throne concert tape] We're here tonight to lift up the name of Jesus-
NARRATOR: This is Throne, a Christian rock band led by Pastor Bonner's teenage son, Britt and his friend, Keith. This concert, taped recently, looks much like Throne concerts did a few years ago, when this was a gathering place for some of Conyers's most troubled teen.
BRITT BONNER: Particularly a couple years ago, there was a season that Throne on Thursday nights- it became sort of, like, the headquarters, the center for lost kids.
NARRATOR: One of those who came regularly was Kevin.
KEVIN: We'd go there every Thursday night, hang out and- I don't know. A lot of people just went because there was music, something to do on Thursday night.
THRONE: [concert tape] For me Jesus died! For me Jesus died!
NARRATOR: Kevin's sister, Jenny, also came.
JENNY: It wasn't like a regular church. It was, "Come there. You're a teenager. Have fun." It was basically to be around my friends because they all went there.
D.J.: For a little while, Throne became a just real social thing. It really wasn't about God. But it was sort of "Let's lure everybody in and hopefully they'll, you know, find God."
NARRATOR: At first reluctantly, and then with increasing enthusiasm, D.J. also began to show up at Throne. It was just as the syphilis outbreak was reaching its height.
D.J.: Since I was young, my whole life had been a giant violent rampage with everybody, myself and everybody around me. And that was all I knew. And I didn't want that anymore.
BRITT BONNER: [Throne concert tape] What's going on? What's going on with our world? There's a missing element. You need Jesus Christ. You need that missing element in your life.
D.J.: I separated myself from every friend, every drug, sex, everything. I went to church every day I could. I went to church all the time. I tried to love life and uphold the most moral lifestyle that- you know, that I felt that I should do.
KEITH AIKEN: When he was in, he was in. We were spending the night at a buddy of mine- buddy of mine's house. And I was asleep, and I woke up in the middle of the night, and I heard him praying in the middle of the night. It was, like, 1:00 o'clock at night, and I heard him just praying to God by himself for a good 30 minutes about all kinds of stuff.
INTERVIEWER: About what?
KEITH AIKEN: "God, what am I supposed to do with my life? What does this mean? What am I supposed to do in this situation?" Just everything you can imagine.
BRITT BONNER: For a while, he was the perfect example of a convert, if you will.
NARRATOR: D.J. was 15 when this video of him was taken at Throne.
D.J.: I wanted to see or to feel that perfect companionship, that eternal love. I wanted to have that.
NARRATOR: Ultimately, though, the Christian way of life demanded sacrifices that D.J. and many other kids were unwilling to make.
INTERVIEWER: Keith, it didn't stick with D.J. What happened? What went wrong?
KEITH AIKEN: To me, I don't- I don't really know. Me and him kind of grew apart a little bit. We quit hanging out as much, and he started hanging a little bit with this other crew that he used to hang out with before he started hanging out here. People you hang out with really influence you, no matter if you say you're strong or not. Who you hang out is pretty much what you're going to be.
NARRATOR: D.J. himself says God failed him.
D.J.: I asked God one day to show me something. "God, please show me. Please, I've been a servant to you the whole time. I've completely devoted my life to you." You know, "Show me one thing. Prove to me this is not myself making myself feel this way." I wanted something, some tangible evidence, some proof. And I got none.
NARRATOR: Kevin is 17 now, and it's been more than a year since he went to Throne.
KEVIN: I didn't really want to live the life that- like Christians lived. I wanted to have the life that was go out and have fun. So I just stopped going. And I- like, I felt stupid every time I'd go there every Thursday and be saved. And I just didn't think I needed to do that.
NARRATOR: Kevin lives with his family in Irwin Place, one of Rockdale's nicer subdivisions. Kevin lives in the pool house out back. He says he comes and goes as he likes.
KEVIN: Most people, when they're 17, their parents won't let them stay out as long as they want. I come and go whenever I want. They just- I don't know. They're not really the kind of parents to really give a lot of discipline, so-
CATHERINE, Kevin's Mother: I think we give them too much. Too much has been handed to them, you know? Mostly everything they get we've given them- T.V.'s and VCRs, things I didn't have when I was a teenager.
NARRATOR: Kevin's parents, Steve and Catherine, have raised five children in Conyers.
STEVE, Kevin's Father: She disagrees with me, but my feeling is you need to give them a little bit of leeway. Let them get to go out and sow their oats as they're young so they won't do it when they're old. Put them on a long leash, and as long as they
don't step out of your boundaries, let them go. But if they do step out of your boundaries, yank that chain back. I'm very lenient with them. She's not. And she doesn't want me to be as lenient as I am, but that's just the way I feel.
CATHERINE: I think you should, you know, put your foot down and tell them that you're not going to put up with this and that. And just the other day, me and Jenny was in here talking, and she said- she was saying, "I wish you'd been more- you should have been more strict with me." I said, "Jenny, how could- you wouldn't let me be strict," you know? "You threatened to run away." I said, "That's easy for you to say now, but the child that you are, stubborn as you are, how could I have been stricter with you??
NARRATOR: Their daughter Jenny is 19.
JENNY: They used to be real strict on us. It was, like, us kids kind of took over and started to do what we wanted to, and they just gave up.
INTERVIEWER: It seems like you've lost the war for control against-
INTERVIEWER: -your husband and your kids.
CATHERINE: Yeah. I have literally gave up. I got tired of the fighting, the bickering, with Jenny. I didn't- like, my nerves would be just, you know, shot. And I got to the point where it's easier for me to let Jenny go do what she wants to instead of standing there fussing and fighting with her. And we get along better. You know, she's- she seems to be- you know, she'll come talk to me more now than she would since it seems like I let go. You know, she- the struggle is over.
NARRATOR: In the summer of 1998, something happened to this family that changed them permanently. It started when Kevin's best friend, Keith, came to live with them. Keith's mother had a boyfriend in another town, and she often left Keith to fend for himself. Everyone in Kevin's family adored Keith.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me about your best friend.
KEVIN: His name was Keith Pierce. He was 19. And we were best friends for about three years. And everything we did, we did together.
CATHERINE: I never met anybody like Keith. He- you could talk to Keith, you know? He'd come in here and kid with you, you know? I'd be cooking, and he'd- "Is that my food?" You know? And I'd say, "Oh, no, that isn't your food." I don't know. He was just- I don't know, a jolly guy, you know? He was just different. Maybe he- you know, I guess, coming from his family, you know, he wanted the attention, you know, so- and he got it here.
NARRATOR: In the summer of 1998, Keith, Kevin and a few friends drove to Panama City, Florida, a playground for teenagers from all over the country. At the height of the season, thousands of high school students jam the two-lane highway and crowd the beaches, partying all night. Fights break out spontaneously, and kids have sex in full view on the sand and on motel balconies overlooking the strip.
D.J.: Conyers owns Panama around spring break. Some people get drunk, get completely oblivious, dilute themselves to the point where they have no control. It's all-out vacation.
KEVIN: Everything just got crazy. We stayed drunk the whole time we were down there. And just everywhere you looked, people were fighting, busting bottles over people's heads, everything. I don't know why we were all fighting. We just were.
NARRATOR: In the early hours of the morning, Keith took off in his Jeep for home. On the way, he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed. A week later, he died from his injuries.
STEVE: I don't even know how to describe it. He was a good boy. Still hard to talk about it.
KEVIN: Just the nighttime, I sit there and just think back of what it used to be like. And things just started changing. I didn't want to party anymore. Haven't gone to church or anything. I just don't get into trouble anymore. I don't know. Everybody else is still out partying.
INTERVIEWER: When you look at your children now since it happened, has it affected the way you feel about them, the time you spend with them?
CATHERINE: Yeah, I think we all changed after it happened. You know, we- see if I can explain it. I guess we're more- I guess we've reached out to each other more, you know? I'm trying to think of a way to describe it. We've never been a family where we hugged, you know, or- you know, don't show emotion like that. And we still don't do that, but- I don't know. It's made me change how I feel- you know, being more- I don't know how to explain it.
KEVIN: In my family, you're going to do as you want to do. If they tell you to do something, it doesn't matter. You're going to do what you want to do. This is just how it is in my family. There's nobody going to stop you, so- that's what got me in trouble.
INTERVIEWER: Do you ever wish that your parents were stricter with you?
KEVIN: Not really. I mean, I wish that they wouldn't have let me go to Panama because if I wouldn't have gone, Keith wouldn't have gone, but- if I could, I wish I could go back and change that. I wish they would have been stricter. But, I mean, there's really not a whole lot I can do about it.
BETH ROSS, Dir. Counseling, Rockdale County Schools: I think there are a lot of children who are running their own lives, who really are testing limits or don't know what the limits are. They're like a balloon, out there floating around in the sky with little direction. And to run into a powerline or to a tree and just burst is something that they're very unaware that could happen. They don't know what's down the road. [www.pbs.org: Read the full interview]
NARRATOR: Today most younger teenagers here have never heard of the syphilis outbreak or the kids involved in it. But in many ways, Conyers is still the same place. There is still no mall, only one movie theater and, the kids say, nothing much to do on Saturday night.
The bowling alley is one of the few places for teenagers to gather. Katy is 14. Her friends, Bridget and Christine, are 15.
They meet at the bowling alley every weekend, not to bowl but to play out the melodramas of adolescence.
GIRLS: These are our three best friends. We have a bunch of friends, but we only have- like, we're like best friends.
KATY: Yeah. This are this is our little group right here. But we have all the rest that hang out with us. But this is the main people, us three..
NARRATOR: Most of the time, they are kicked out before the night is over.
CHRISTINE: Conyers police harass everybody. They kick us, me and Katy and Bridget, out of everywhere, but they kick everybody out, just because you're not playing or because you're not wearing shoes, but you're paying for a bowling game, just because you're not wearing the shoes. They just harass everybody.
INTERVIEWER: Where do you go when you get kicked out?
CHRISTINE: The movies.
CHRISTINE: We go to the movies. If we get kicked out of the movies, we go to- [crosstalk] Yeah, Arby's or whatever, until we-
BRIDGET: Or McDonald's.
KATY: We can get on the streets and do what we want. I used to sneak out all the time. Then there was times that I wouldn't come home.
INTERVIEWER: At all?
KATY: Yeah. There are so many ways we can sneak around behind our parents' back and do what we want.
NARRATOR: Rockdale County has much to be proud of in its teenagers. Last year 85 percent of them went on to higher education. Their test scores are among the best in Georgia, and their athletic and drama programs are hailed as outstanding.
Those teens that do misbehave are treated strictly by the county. The Conyers police are known to pull teenagers over for even minor infractions. The local paper publishes the names and offenses of every teenage lawbreaker 17 and over, and parents are notified if their children are caught breaking curfew.
When it comes to teenage sex, the community sends a clear message to its teens. At school, there is a comprehensive sex ed curriculum that centers on abstinence. In a popular after-school program, 7th graders pledge their virginity until marriage.
For some kids, the message has stuck. Before the morning bell rings at Heritage High, a Christian prayer service can be heard echoing down the hallways.
JENNIFER: I know where I stand. I know who I am in God. And nobody on this earth is going to be able to pull me off of that.
NARRATOR: Jennifer is 17. Her friends, Penie and Kira, are 16. They are devout Christians.
INTERVIEWER: Are you guys all virgins?
JENNIFER, KIRA, PENIE: Yes. Yes.
INTERVIEWER: Why? Why have you stayed virgins?
KIRA: Because that's- that's my morals that I live by. My parents have taught me from- since I was little that that's a good thing to do. I mean, it's just always been a right to me. It's always been right to save it.
NARRATOR: The girls say their way of life has isolated them from their peers.
KIRA: We got into high school, and high school's a lot different than middle school. Sex is the cool thing, and drugs is the cool thing, and drinking is cool. I went to one party in 9th grade, and I just- I just didn't like it after that. I mean- I mean, I wanted to go, I mean, because everybody wants to go to parties. And I got there, and I just knew that was not what I'm- that's not what I'm about. I'm about something different.
NARRATOR: The girls all left the Conyers public schools for a private Christian school called Springs Academy. Their circle of friends has narrowed, too, to those who share their beliefs.
JENNIFER: Guys definitely seem to be intimidated- I don't know by other Christian girls, but seem to be intimidated by me. Sometimes it's hard, and it's- like, you question yourself. It's, like, "Why is this worth it?" It's, like, "These guys are there afraid of me." It's definitely been lonely at times.
PENIE: It really is hard, you know, when you try to be good, and then people want to always tar you and say, "Oh, no. You're a hypocrite," you know? It's really hard.
NARRATOR: At times, the girls say, they have even been harassed by their peers.
PENIE: People like to say things. You know, they said that I was sleeping with- around with a lot of guys, you know, and that's not the case, you know? And they'd say I get drunk, and I was not doing that at all, you know? And drugs and anything else you can imagine. You know, none of that was true.
INTERVIEWER: What do you think of girls who decide they're going to stay virgins till they get married?
KATY: It's not going to happen. I mean, there's still a few out there that actually do stay virgins till they get married, and that's real good. I wish I could have done that. But it's just- most of them that say that that's going to- they're going to do that, it's not going to happen because of peer pressure and just being curious, falling in love with somebody.
NARRATOR: Katy and her friends are freshmen at one of Rockdale's three public high schools.
INTERVIEWER: What's the typical age for girls to lose their virginity?
KATY, BRIDGET, CHRISTINE: Thirteen. Fourteen. Thirteen or fourteen.
INTERVIEWER: That's typical?
INTERVIEWER: What kind of music do you guys like?
INTERVIEWER: Like what?
GIRLS: Like, Master P. Tupac, definitely. Oh, I love Tupac.
INTERVIEWER: What do you like about rap?
GIRLS: The beat. The beat. And the words. And it's just, like, loud. You can really get up and dance.
CHRISTINE: And the way that it's, like- they can talk about something that's, like, completely stupid, like drugs and stuff. [crosstalk] But it's the way they put it, it sounds interesting.
INTERVIEWER: Give me an example.
CHRISTINE: I can't think of a song.
GIRLS: [singing rap] Oh, take three witches and put 'em in a [unintelligible] I take clothes off you, and I'm blowing [unintelligible] mind. Take one more before I go [unintelligible] Seven bitches get fucked at the same time. The [unintelligible] she can suck a ding-dong all day, all night, all evening long. Bitch has never done it. She says she never tried. [unintelligible] mother-fucking [unintelligible] if the bitch is a good trick. Anybody can talk to a bitch and get the bitch to fuck, but how many [unintelligible] talk to a bitch and get their dick sucked like me? A pimp that you never saw [unintelligible]
INTERVIEWER: That's about group sex.
INTERVIEWER: Is that something anybody does around here?
BRIDGET: Lots of people. A lot of people.
CHRISTINE: Yes, a lot of people.
KATY: It's something that is nasty to think about!
BRIDGET: Yeah. I couldn't do it, but I know a lot of people that do. [crosstalk]
KATY: A lot of people do stuff like that, just experiment.
BRIDGET: Like riding the train.
KATY: Like, say there was one guy here with us. This is our man, okay? He sleeps with me first. And when we get done, he sleeps with Bridget. They get done, then he sleeps with her. When they get done, he'll probably come back to me. [crosstalk]
CHRISTINE: Or there's another way. This is the girl. This is the girl. This is the guy. She's on him, and he's on her. [they laugh]
BRIDGET: That's a free-for-all.
CHRISTINE: I know, but it's also riding the train.
INTERVIEWER: How do you guys know about this?
CHRISTINE: I heard.
BRIDGET: Just talk.
CHRISTINE: Everybody talks.
BRIDGET: Everybody talks about it.
GIRL IN CAFETERIA: She wrote down all the people she fucked, and it took up a fuckin' whole page, three columns! That's what I heard. I was the second person to hear it because-
NARRATOR: At school, we heard lots of talk about sex.
BRANDI: I mean, sex is just a thing. It's no big deal anymore. It's just a thing. It's just a thing. It's just like going to school every day, getting up and going to school. "Oh," you know, you meet this guy, "Let's have sex." That's just how it is with people now.
NARRATOR: If Heritage High School has a social pyramid, Brandi is at its pinnacle.
BRANDI: These guys say such sweet things. I know. They say it to me. They say, you know, "You're so beautiful," and they don't even know, and, you know, "I care about you and I love you. I want to be with you forever." Please! You know? They don't know what that means.
I don't think I've seen any of my friends truly have a love connection because they're too young to know what love is. I mean, guys don't know what love is. So the girl might think they do, but they don't. And they're thinking that it's the guy showing them affection back, and it's not. He just wants some of that girl.
INTERVIEWER: Do you enjoy it?
BRANDI: No. Sex sucks, actually. So I think only guys benefit from it. I think that it's- I think sex was made for guys because you just lay there, and you're just, like, "Get off me. What are you doing?"
NARRATOR: Many of them have regrets.
INTERVIEWER: You regret losing your virginity?
BRIDGET: It was a mistake.
BRIDGET: Because I was too young. We weren't going out. It was a one-night stand.
INTERVIEWER: How old were you?
INTERVIEWER: It was a one-night stand?
BRIDGET: I mean, we were friends, whatever, but- you know, it was a mistake. Bad.
INTERVIEWER: Why do you think you did it?
BRIDGET: I have no idea. I think mostly it's curiosity. I wanted to experiment because all my friends, they've done it, and I was, like, the only one that hadn't. I mean, I didn't do it because everybody else did it. It's just- I just wanted to feel what they were feeling.
KATY: I always thought of myself losing my virginity when I had been going out with somebody for a long time and I knew that they loved me and I
loved them. But we hadn't even been going out for a week, and it was just- and then, like, a week later he broke up with me.
INTERVIEWER: Did you decide beforehand to do it?
KATY: Like, we had been going out, and then one night he came over and climbed in my window. And we were just kissing, and it happened.
BETH ROSS, Dir. Counseling, Rockdale County Schools: I've observed girls in a structured group with a counselor who have been involved in sexual activity. They know they've done something wrong, but they don't know how they would have stopped it, and they don't know how they would stop it the next time that it comes around.
No one has ever sat down and specifically said to them, "This is how far you go. This is the limits," that "This- this is what I will accept from you as appropriate," whether that's a parent or a grandparent or an aunt or an uncle or someone who has taken the time to give them those limits. The anxiety of not having the limits on a regular basis can be extremely debilitating to the child.
HEATHER: I like it better when she's gone than when she's at home. I like it better alone than I do with parents.
NARRATOR: Heather is 15. Her mother, Pat, has a corporate job that often takes her out of town.
PAT: This past year I'm trying to help the company get ready for the year 2000. I've done quite a bit of traveling, staying, you know, a week at a time quite a bit.
NARRATOR: Even when they are both at home, Heather and her mother don't spend much time together.
PAT: She goes up to her room and either takes her school books and studies or watches whatever T.V. channel she can pick up for the evening. I usually go in mine. I like listening to radio. So I would put on the radio, or I have my- a laptop from work. I'll go to my bedroom and do some work and have my dinner in there.
INTERVIEWER: You don't eat dinner together?
PAT: No, we don't eat dinner together. We're really trying to improve on that.
NARRATOR: They have always spent time apart. Pat and Heather's father divorced when Heather and her older brother were small, and to support the family, Pat threw herself into building a career of her own.
PAT: Trying to raise two kids and go to school and work a full-time job was difficult. I felt very guilty. I felt very guilty, though I kept doing it.
INTERVIEWER: Why did you keep doing it?
PAT: I guess because I had made a commitment to myself to get my degree. And I really felt to better our lives I had to get that degree. I don't know if one pays off for the other, you know, if there's a good balance there. It has paid off financially that I got the degree. We are financially better off than we were then. Heather has the Tommys and the Filas and whatever name clothes that the kids are out there- I do buy her those. At least it makes her feel she's as good as everybody else.
NARRATOR: Heather took advantage of her mother's absence. One night when she was 12, she snuck out of the house and got so drunk she blacked out.
HEATHER: The next thing I know, I wake up and I'm in a room, and I don't have my pants on and- so, I mean, I really couldn't call it rape because, you know, I put myself in that position in the first place. And I was only 12 years old, and I shouldn't have been out past that time anyway. And I shouldn't have been drinking or none of that. But you know, I was in a blackout, so I was going along with it. I just didn't know it.
PAT: She was 14 when she told me. But from what I'm understanding from her, she was 12 when she lost her virginity, which is just mind-boggling to me.
NARRATOR: After the incident, Heather's troubles worsened. She started drinking more and soon doing drugs.
HEATHER: It's, like, "Hey, I'm doing drugs every day, and I've barely been sober for three, four years." And you just kind of get scared. And you don't remember what it's like to be sober. You know, you don't remember what you did the day before you ever started doing drugs. It was easy. It was real easy. Parents just- they know that it's out there, but they don't know it's that close to, you know, where you're at or- it's everywhere.
PAT: I probably took more of the blame than- than I gave her because I felt like I was not the parent I should have been. I should have been home. So, yeah.
INTERVIEWER: It's painful.
PAT: Yeah, it is.
INTERVIEWER: Can't go back.
PAT: No. No, and that's why I knew when she told me. We can't go back. We have to go forward. Now what do we do? That's what we're trying to do.
NARRATOR: Last spring, Pat quit her job and started her own company, allowing her to spend more time at home with Heather. She has bought a new house for them to live in.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think that on some level Heather might have wanted you to step in and take control?
PAT: Yes, I do.
INTERVIEWER: What makes you think that?
PAT: Because she kept getting worse. And once I took control, she has done so much better. I mean, it's just- it's night and day. It is night and day. I think she was crying out for help. I really do.
HEATHER: I've, you know, taken my second vow, I guess. I don't know. I'm a born-again virgin. I have been since the beginning of 10th grade. I just wanted to make sure, you know, I'd get in heaven, and I don't want no more sins or nothing like that.
You know, I started thinking about what I was going to be when I get older and how I was supposed to get there and what my reputation is like and what I needed to do to change that, so- I've done a lot since then, you know? I've changed a lot of things around. [www.pbs.org: View more of the teens' interviews]
INTERVIEWER: So you don't drink anymore, go out?
HEATHER: Oh, I still drink. That's the only thing I do. I drink. I have to have something to do, you know?
NEWS ANNOUNCER: Updating our top story right now taking place in Conyers, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta, Georgia: A suspect is in custody after yet another school shooting, which took place just after 8:00 A.M. Eastern in Conyers.
NARRATOR: On the 20th of May, as we were preparing to tape one of our final interviews, a news bulletin came on the radio.
REPORTER: It happened around 8:00 o'clock this morning, when a gunman opened fire in the common area at the school, injuring six students.
STUDENT: He was wearing a white T-shirt and a pair of bluejeans and a pair of tennis shoes. And he had a shotgun.
NARRATOR: There had been a shooting at Heritage High School, where we had filmed only a few weeks before. One boy had stepped out of the crowd and opened fire, wounding six of his classmates.
STUDENT: Yeah, he put the gun in his mouth, and he was laying down, and they told me, "It's all right, man. Just calm down. It'll be okay. Just put the gun down. Don't do this. It's all right."
NARRATOR: But after the shock had subsided, no one could say what had made this boy different.
STUDENT: My best friend said that he sits to him every day in English, and he was just a normal kid. He was- you know, he got good grade and he was, you know, a normal kid, I guess.
REPORTER: Those whose parents were here were sent home with their parents. Others who had cars were allowed to leave with their cars. And others were taken by bus. And it comes as a shock to parents that it could happen here, too. School is closed for today. Not sure what will happen tomorrow here.
CATHERINE, Kevin's Mother: I guess you get to a point where you have to let go, and you hope they make the right decision because you can't- you know, you can't protect them all your life. They have to make the decision whether to take drugs or whether to drink or whether to have sex. That's something that they have to decide to do. I can give them my opinion and tell them how I feel, but they have to decide for theirself.
FRANK, Amy's Father: I just feel you're helpless. I don't believe I could put enough pressure on my family and my daughters to overcome that kind of pressure, the social pressure that they have out there. There's just no way to do it.
CINDY, Nicole's Mother: I don't know the answer to it. I don't think anyone does, because if there was an answer, we'd change it. You would help any kid you could help, if there was an answer.
ANNOUNCER: This FRONTLINE report continues at our Web site. Read what national experts on teenagers think about this story. Watch an interview with the program's producers. View more of these kids talking about relationships, sex, friends, drugs and alcohol and parents. And join the discussion at pbs.org
Next time on FRONTLINE:
AL PACINO, Actor: [movie clip] Are you a businessman, or are you a newsman?
ANNOUNCER: What really happened when 60 Minutes tried to take on the tobacco industry?
CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER: [movie clip] He can talk. We can air it.
ANNOUNCER: FRONTLINE investigates the story behind Hollywood's controversial new movie.
MIKE WALLACE, CBS NEWS: It was the CBS lawyers who told us that "You are to do no more reporting."
ANNOUNCER: Why did CBS spike its own journalists?
FORMER CBS NEWS PRODUCER: More is going on here than we even know now.
ANNOUNCER: Smoke in the Eye.
For videocassette information about tonight's program, please call 1-800-328-PBS-1.
CREDITS DURING PREVIEW:
The Lost Children of Rockdale County
Rachel Dretzin Goodman
Rachel Dretzin Goodman
ORIGINAL REPORTING BY
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