A torrent of mixed emotions flowed from Rockdale County community members after Tuesday night's broadcast of "The Lost Children of Rockdale County."
Through a series of interviews with teens, their parents and health workers, the documentary explored a 1996 outbreak of syphilis in the county that affected mostly teenagers. Some saw the program as a call to action, others as a misrepresentation of teens in the community and, for most, it was a little of both.
"It did represent a minority and not a majority of teens in Rockdale. However, it was the objective of the 'Frontline' show to do a documentary on children who are involved in high-risk activity and what the community can do about it ... When the 'Frontline' producers found the element contributing to the sexually transmitted disease, they jumped on it, but that was their job," said Beth Ross, director of student support services for the school system.
"A weakness in the show was that it did not spend enough time on the good elements of students we have in the community and the quality of the people who live here. It was mentioned, but I don't think it was emphasized."
Ross, who appeared in the show due to her involvement on the syphilis task force, said that some of the troubled kids in the film no longer attend public school in Rockdale County or even live in the county. The ones who remain in Rockdale have strived to turn their lives around, she said.
"There are a lot of good kids in the community and I work with them all the time. I also know, and the kids know it, too, that there is a fine line and it's easy to cross that line ... Being a good kid is a job. Kids have to work at it," said Ross. "I hope parents and their children who are watching realize that it could happen any time, anywhere, to anyone. There is a lot this community can do instead of getting defensive ... We can help do something to keep this from happening again."
Sarah Waldrop, a teacher and coach at Heritage High School, hopes that the show will open parents' eyes to the risks that their children face each day. For example, she has witnessed young teens being dropped off at the theater at night who never actually attend a movie.
"I would never be able to do that. I would think that it would be hard for parents to turn their kids loose, if for no other reason than the dangers that are out there," said Waldrop, herself the mother of an elementary school-aged daughter. "I was horrified and saddened by what I saw in that show. It made me sad that the decisions those kids are making now will affect them for the rest of their lives."
Breakdowns in the family unit affect the kids directly, she said.
"The kids get lost in the shuffle of their parents' lives," said Waldrop. As a teacher and parent, she sees significant crowds at elementary school PTA meetings and skeletal attendance at the high school level.
"That shows you that from the elementary school years to the high school years there's a huge drop off, and I think when you get to the middle and high school years, kids need the boundaries and structure the most," she said.
Rockdale County Board of Education Chairman Bill Malarney said the emotional wounds will take a long time to heal in the families, and that even the kids who appeared tough are scarred.
"For too many years we've labeled certain economic or ethnic groups as at risk. This program demonstrated that any child has the opportunity to be at risk," said Malarney.
Teresa Akins, an employee at Salem High School who has two daughters at Memorial Middle School, felt that even though the show depicted a small percentage of the students, she was glad that she watched it with her children.
"I'm real proud of the decisions that my kids have made. I think that as parents we sometimes forget to congratulate our kids for doing the right thing and ... it's hard for parents to understand the peer pressure on kids," she said. "The majority of the kids make the right decisions daily."
An educator for over 30 years, Pat Wilson, a counselor at Rockdale County High School, feels that parents need to network with each other to talk about what their children are doing and where they are going. She was especially bothered by the parent in the program who had given in to her children.
"I think it needs to be a wake-up call because these kids have too much unsupervised time," said Wilson. "Whoever said parenting is easy? We have to be smart as parents and know when we are being manipulated."
Wilson added that the show offended students - the vast majority of whom don't engage in the behaviors portrayed in the television show - in every class she visited Wednesday.
"The kids here take it personally because they like their school, they like their county and they are proud of themselves," said Wilson. "They don't like being categorized as lost, because that's the minority not the majority."
Rockdale County High School Principal Dr. Kathy Garber echoed Wilson's sentiments. "My kids are really upset ... Some tell me that this could affect their whole lives because the only thing people are seeing about Rockdale is the (Heritage High School) shooting and the sex. They want to get the word out that there are good kids in Rockdale County. The parents (in the film) have abdicated their responsibilities. It just makes my stomach turn."
"The Lost Children of Rockdale County" will air again on Thursday, Oct. 21 at 10 p.m. on Georgia Public Television. The Rockdale Coalition for Children and Families will host a community forum to discuss issues raised in the program on Oct. 26, from 7 p.m.-8:30 p.m. at the Nancy Guinn Memorial Library.
is this story isolated? |
the syphilis outbreak
This article appeared in the October 27, 1999 edition of The Rockdale Citizen.
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