James Madison University

Teen Pregnancy in Harrisonburg

JMU Faculty and Students Collaborate with the Community to Battle High Rates

By Hannah Austin
Posted: April 12, 2013

PHOTO: JMU Student at health fair

All over America, communities are battling to reduce high rates of teen pregnancy.  The local struggle to decrease rates of teen pregnancy is a daunting task, but at James Madison University, a current student, employee, and community member has taken on the challenge.

Kimberlee Hartzler-Weakley graduated from JMU in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in Health Sciences, and in 2007, received a master's degree in Public Health Education. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Strategic Leadership, and says she looks forward to becoming a “triple Duke” in 2015. In addition to her academic pursuits, Hartzler-Weakley has been working at JMU for ten years, and is currently responsible for three separate programs at the Institute for Innovation in Health and Human Services (IIHHS). 

While each program is different, they share a similar goal to ensure support and resources for Harrisonburg families; however, it is in her role as Director of the Office on Children and Youth that Hartzler-Weakley works on the issue she is most passionate about – teen pregnancy. In 2012, with the help of JMU students and a $1.3 million dollar grant from the Family and Youth Services Bureau of the Administration for Children and Families, Hartzler-Weakley began the JMUPrep Initiative, an organization that is initiating a Teen Pregnancy Prevention program in local schools.

The TPP is based on two successful models, the Wyman Institute’s ‘Teen Outreach Program’ and the ‘Draw the Line/Respect the Line’ program, but also includes an innovative strategy of reaching out to the families of pregnant and parenting teens. Once implemented, the program will involve 14 community partners, 16 sites, and 5,050 middle and high school students. The group's overall objective is to reduce the rate of teen pregnancy among youth ages 10 – 19 by 25% in Harrisonburg and 15% in Rockingham and Page County by the year 2015.

PHOTO: JMU student at booth

“Part of the reason I am so interested in the issue of teen pregnancy is because it is a multifaceted issue with many contributing factors and no single solution,” said Hartzler-Weakley. “Teen pregnancy is linked to poverty and is also cyclical, so if your mom was a teen mom, you are much more likely to become one yourself. That is why our initiative is specifically targeting siblings of pregnant and parent teens as one of our priority populations. Another huge factor in teen pregnancy is the role of parents, who model behavior, set boundaries, and enforce rules. If teens do not see healthy relationships modeled at home, then they are less likely to be in a healthy relationship themselves.”

JMUPrep has partnered with many community organizations that share the goal of reducing rates of teen pregnancy. The TPP teaches both abstinence and safe sex practices, but also provides youth with information about healthy relationships, goal setting, development and human sexuality, parent-child communication, and other adult-preparation topics. While the overall goal is to reduce teen pregnancy, the program also strives to produce young adults who will be the next generation of educated and active community members.

“Research indicates that if you help teens create a positive view of their future, you can help them avoid many risky behaviors,” said Hartzler-Weakley.  “I want to help kids stay out of trouble and realize that there are bigger and better things out there for them.”

Although each partner plays an integral role in meeting these objectives, the project would be impossible without the support of JMU students, who provide their time through volunteering and meeting internship or class requirements. In addition to working with the TPP staff to initiate programming in schools, students are involved in behind-the-scenes work, such as data analysis, creating newsletters, and running media campaigns.

“Without JMU students, we would never be able to serve anywhere near the number of students we currently serve,” said Hartzler-Weakley. “The JMU students are also an important component to our program because they are closer in age to the teens and I think they can really relate to them. The students serve as role models and mentors and help get the teens interested in higher education. It is really a win-win. Students have spent years building up their knowledge in the classroom, and we get to take them into the field and help them put that knowledge to work while fulfilling pressing community needs.”

Kayla Burley is a Health Sciences sophomore who has been involved with the JMUPrep Initiative since August 2012. Her duties include collecting and analyzing data for the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Country Youth Data Survey, researching sex education topics to convey to the community and school district, and assisting with sex education within classrooms. 

“The Institute for Innovation in Health and Human Services wants to help educate kids about sex and experience,” said Burley. “Teen pregnancy prevention is an important issue to me because I love to help kids achieve their life goals. My personal platform for research is mental and behavioral health as it leads to substance abuse and other risky behaviors in child and adolescent populations, and premature and unsafe sex are certainly part of those risky behaviors.” 
The struggle to reduce rates of teen pregnancy is a task that will require the continued collaboration of JMU and the Harrisonburg community, but as Hartzler-Weakley said, anyone can make a difference. “So many teens do not have a supportive family environment,” she explained. “What they often need is someone to encourage them and be a good role model, and anyone who has a teen in their life can do that.”

JMU students or Harrisonburg community members who are interested in being a part of TPP can contact Hannah Smith at smith2hh@jmu.edu or (540)-568-7684.