May has been National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month—a month-long opportunity for parents, schools, policy-makers, and organizations to promote and support effective teen pregnancy prevention initiatives. As becoming pregnant as a teen is a significant stumbling block to a financially secure future, measures devoted to preventing teen pregnancy certainly are important.
At the same time, we should also support teens who do become pregnant, and thereby begin to eliminate many of the disastrous consequences of teen pregnancy. Indeed, there are many straight-forward ways to support pregnant and parenting teens. The most important is doing all we can to ensure that they stay in school.
All too often, once prevention efforts have failed, a teenager is written off as doomed to a life of poverty. However, it isn’t necessarily getting pregnant that ruins the lives of teen mothers; rather, it is the act of dropping out of school. After all, a high school dropout is more likely to face a life of poverty than is a parenting teen who stays in school. And pregnancy is the number one reason girls drop out of school in the U.S., and two out of three girls who become pregnant fail to earn their diploma, according to TeenHelp.com.
Fortunately, all the evidence suggests that these students are generally very motivated to stay in school. The problem is that they face so many obstacles that staying often feels impossible. The vast majority of teenage mothers who drop out do so because of policies and practices at their school that are hostile, inflexible, or unaccommodating.
Coercion and pressure comes in many ways: school administrators strongly encouraging pregnant students to leave their school, counselors pushing them into inferior alternative programs, teachers refusing to allow for make-up work or take-home assignments, and schools excluding them from events and activities.
All of these practices are not only extremely damaging to these girls, they also are illegal; any coercion or pressure to leave school violates the federal Title IX law.
Additionally, research shows that supporting pregnant girls in their education can have a significant impact in lowering their drop-out rates. There are currently 23 school districts in Washington that offer a GRADS Program—a school-based program for pregnant teens that develops real-life work and parenting skills while supporting their efforts to earn a high school diploma and providing on-site daycare.
You need to look no further than the GRADS Program at South Lake High School in Seattle’s Rainier Beach to see what happens when we give these students a little support. The school recently graduated 13 pregnant or parenting students, compared to one such student who graduated before the GRADS program arrived. Such school-based programs prove that teenage parents can be successful if rather than writing them off and showing them the door, we extend a hand and make them feel that they belong.
The ACLU-WA is working to increase awareness about the legal rights of pregnant students and to promote best practices by school districts. If you or someone you know personally has been treated poorly at school because they are pregnant or have a child, please let us know. We may be able to help, and your story may help others in the same situation.