Fairness for Pregnant and Parenting Students Gets a Boost from the Feds

Monday, July 29, 2013

The fight for fairness in education for pregnant and parenting girls recently got a big boost – from the federal government. The U.S. Department of Education took action to make sure these girls are given the same access to education and opportunities as other students.

Pregnancy is the No. 1 reason teenage girls drop out of school. By some estimates, over 50 percent of teenage girls who give birth drop out of school, and a much higher percentage are pushed into substandard alternative programs. Many of these girls say that had they gotten more support from the adults at school (teachers, staff, counselors), they would have stayed.

The good news is that teenage pregnancy rates are significantly lower in Washington state than the rest of the U.S., according to a Seattle Times article. The bad news is that even though our state has lower rates than the national average, girls who are pregnant or are parenting are still being illegally discriminated against.

Under Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in schools, pregnant and parenting students must have equal access to school and equal access to all available education opportunities. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Too often, schools refuse to excuse girls for pregnancy-related doctor’s appointments, teachers refuse to allow them to make up work, and often girls are discouraged from attending school and told to go to an alternative school.

Although illegal, this kind of discrimination happens on a regular basis and contributes to high dropout rates. “When teachers found out I was pregnant, they told me I ruined my life,” a teenaged mother told the ACLU. “They said they had no hope for me. I tried to stay in school, but I felt awful. The counselor pressured me to go to [an] alternative school.”

 In light of the problem, the Dept. of Education on June 25 sent out a “Dear Colleague” letter accompanied by a 34-page pamphlet to school districts, colleges, and universities in hopes of encouraging schools to abide current laws and to enforce a non-discriminatory policy. In the letter, the Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights reminded schools that:

  • They must give students excused absences for pregnancy or childbirth for as long as the doctor recommends;
  • Pregnant students must be treated in the same way as students with temporary medical conditions. This means that pregnant students must be provided with any special services given to those who have temporary medical conditions, such as tutoring or make-up assignments; and
  • Schools cannot force pregnant students to take special instructional programs or classes or move to an alternative school. If the student voluntarily decides to move to a special program, it must be comparable to the programming and classes offered to other students in its academics, extracurricular activities and enrichment opportunities.

“We need to do more to help the hundreds of thousands of students who become mothers and fathers each year graduate from high school ready for college and successful careers,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a press release. “We must support pregnant and parenting students so they can build better lives for themselves and their children.”

The ACLU of Washington is working to help these girls and thousands of others like them by pushing for greater compliance with the laws that are already in place and by pushing for better state and local policies the help these students stay and succeed in school.

We want to hear about the experiences of pregnant and parenting students who have been denied equal educational opportunities in Washington state. People can share their experience with us confidentially by sending an e-mail to: [email protected].