TOPPENISH, Wash. — When Gaby Rodriguez took off her fake baby belly and revealed to her classmates that for months they had been part of an elaborate social experiment, she did more than force members of her community to examine how they treat pregnant teens – she got the attention of the nation.
The Yakima Herald-Republic detailed the experience of the 17-year-old Rodriguez in a story Wednesday that caught the attention of shows like "Good Morning America" and resonated with viewers of popular teen mom reality shows.
School officials said they and Rodriguez would have no more comment until she returns from a class trip next week. But her action thrust her into a growing conversation.
The profile of teen moms has changed in recent years. Kids on shows like MTV's "Teen Mom" and "16 and Pregnant" have taken spots alongside movie stars on magazine covers.
Three years ago, Bristol Palin was a pregnant 17-year-old introduced to the world during her mother's run for vice president. And today, she has earned hundreds of thousands of dollars as a spokeswoman who works to prevent teen pregnancy.
It seems teen mothers are the talk of the nation. But most experts say more conversation is still needed.
"There is a certain amount of acceptance or apathy around the issue, where we just accept it and it's just something that happens here," said Dr. Jennifer Unger, an obstetrician and gynecologist at the Yakima Valley Farmworkers Clinic in Toppenish, Wash., where Rodriguez revealed her secret Wednesday to a stunned student body at an assembly at Toppenish High School.
Only a handful of people, including her mother, boyfriend and principal, were in on the secret. The rest of the community in this Western-themed city, in central Washington's agricultural Yakima Valley, had no clue.
They were kept in the dark as part of her senior project on stereotyping. The Herald-Republic reported that Rodriguez found that she was treated quite differently when people thought she was pregnant.
Consider a comment read from a notecard during the assembly by her best friend, Saida Cortes, a 17-year-old senior: "Her attitude is changing, and it might be because of the baby or she was always this annoying and I never realized it."
Rodriguez kept track of statements like this over the course of her 6 1/2 month ruse.
"I'm fighting against those stereotypes ... because the reality is I'm not pregnant," she said.
The population of Toppenish is about 75 percent Hispanic. And the student body at Toppenish High School is 85 percent Hispanic. Her experiment takes on particular significance given this setting.
Nationally, teen pregnancy rates have been steadily declining for years. However, Latinas have the highest teen pregnancy and birth rate among any major racial or ethnic minority.
Roughly 51 percent of Latina teens will get pregnant before age 20, compared with about 30 percent of teens overall, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
"It's a shocking statistic," said Jessica Sheets, the group's spokeswoman. "I'm impressed by how courageous she was and by how much empathy she has. It's pretty clear that she was able to reach a pretty large group of her peers in a very innovative way."
David Crist, a 75-year-old retired teacher in the Yakima Valley, also commented on Rodriguez's "guts."
Crist remembers when pregnant girls were shuffled to an alternative school so that other students wouldn't be exposed to them, much like special education students.
"I would hope it's not something to be glorified, because once you've got that baby, your life changes 110 percent," he said. "But sometimes these things happen. These girls need to be supported."
Crist also said he didn't think any of his now-grown children would have succeeded with such a project.
"My son's a professional actor," he said, "and I still don't think he could have pulled it off."
Unger deals with a lot of teenage pregnancies at the clinic and knows Rodriguez, but wasn't aware of the girl's project until she read about it in the newspaper. Efforts like that, though, help to break the "code of silence" around a passive issue, where girls don't take an active role in taking preventive measures, she said.
"This is one of the issues where I feel like we have to try a little harder," she said. "Her intent was to explore people's reactions if a top student, someone you wouldn't expect, were to get pregnant. She started a conversation." she said.
Laura Yepez, 17, agreed, saying she was proud of her friend Rodriguez, but stunned by the announcement.
"She just wanted to put her feet in the shoes of girls who've been pregnant and see how they're treated. I'm proud of her."