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Report Card - Treatment of Pregnant and Parenting Students

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Twenty–five years of Title IX have kept school doors open for pregnant and parenting students, for whom education is the pathway to economic self–sufficiency. However, more work is necessary to ensure that pregnant and parenting teens continue their education. The stakes for these young mothers and their families are especially high now that the nation's welfare system has been altered, placing lifetime limits on the amount of available public assistance.

Closed Doors to Young Parents. Before Title IX was enacted, teen pregnancy generally marked the end of a student's educational career. Students who became pregnant were typically told to leave school so that other students would not be 'infected' by what school administrators viewed as a bad example. Teen mothers were not always welcome to return to school after giving birth, particularly if they were unmarried. Although some separate schools for pregnant students and young mothers did exist, they often focused exclusively on so–called 'relevant' learning, such as parenting classes, nutrition, and child development courses. Title IX's enactment meant an end to these practices; however, more efforts are necessary to ensure that pregnant and parenting teens may continue their education and move closer to self–sufficiency.

Making Education Accessible. Title IX's proscription against sex discrimination encompasses policies that limit educational opportunities for pregnant and parenting students. The Department of Education made this fact clear in Title IX's implementing regulation, released in 1975. The regulation interpreted Title IX to prohibit schools receiving federal funds from discriminating against students on the basis of pregnancy or marital status, and from discriminating against parenting students on the basis of sex. Under the regulation, schools may not exclude a student from any school program or activity on the basis of that student's pregnancy or related condition. In addition, schools must provide pregnant students with an excused medical leave of absence for a period of time deemed reasonably necessary by that student's doctor, and must reinstate that student to the same status she held when her leave began. While schools may operate separate programs for pregnant and parenting teens, such programs must be completely voluntary, and must be comparable to the instructional programs provided to non–pregnant students. In all other respects, schools must treat pregnancy and related conditions no worse than they treat any other temporary disability that students may experience.

Persistent Discrimination. Despite the important legal protections established by Title IX, many schools continue to treat pregnant and parenting students as second–class citizens. The competing demands of pregnancy and parenthood make school burdensome under the best of circumstances; additional barriers can make it intolerable. Consequently, even the most subtle forms of discrimination can be enough to push these students out of the classroom.

For the most part, schools no longer have explicit policies expelling pregnant students or requiring them to attend separate school programs. However, even this most blatant violation of Title IX still occurs in some schools. For example, until a complaint was filed with the Office for Civil Rights in 1993, the St. Louis public school system had a written policy requiring all pregnant elementary and secondary students to attend a separate school for pregnant students in the district. The school system revised its policy to comply with Title IX after the complaint was filed. Similarly, an Indiana school district was found by OCR to violate Title IX by excluding pregnant students from school. Other significant, if infrequent, reports of school policies explicitly barring pregnant students from school continue to surface.

While national data documenting school practices and policies toward pregnant and parenting students does not exist, anecdotal evidence suggests that other, more subtle types of discrimination against this population occur much more frequently than outright expulsion. For example, some schools require pregnant students to submit frequent letters from a doctor certifying that they are able to stay in school, while students with other temporary disabilities are not subjected to such a requirement. Rather than comply with this additional burden, some pregnant students drop out of schools. Some school officials deny pregnant students the opportunity to do make–up work for missed class time, even though other students who miss school for health reasons are permitted to do so. Many guidance counselors informally counsel pregnant and parenting students to attend a separate school, without informing them that they have the right to remain in their regular school programs. While separate schools for pregnant and parenting students have improved since Title IX was passed, many such schools still shortchange their students with an inferior academic curriculum and a primary focus on parenting and homemaking skills. Pregnant students are not always treated the same as other temporarily disabled students with respect to home instruction programs, excused absences, and special accommodations in scheduling and facilities to enable students to continue their education. Finally, many pregnant and parenting students report a hostile reaction by school teachers and administrators to their situation, making them wish they could disappear from view. Unfortunately, a substantial number of them do.

Ongoing Discriminatory Practices Against Pregnant and Parenting Students
  • Excluding pregnant students from school.
  • Denying pregnant students the opportunity to make up missed classes.
  • Requiring pregnant students to attend a separate, frequently less rigorous, school or counseling designed to steer pregnant students to such a school.

Impact of Discrimination. Although high school completion rates for pregnant students and teen mothers have increased dramatically since Title IX was passed, much progress remains to be made. Pregnancy and/or parenting are still the most commonly cited reasons why girls drop out of school, accounting for about one half of the female dropout rate and one quarter of the total dropout rate. About half of all young women who give birth at age 17 or younger do not complete high school. This is particularly true for young women of color, whose birth rate exceeds that of white women: the birth rate for Latinas is 13 percent; that of African American women is 19 percent; for white women, 8 percent.

The importance of education to pregnant and parenting teens cannot be overstated. Young mothers who stay in school are much more likely to achieve long–term financial self–sufficiency than young mothers who do not. The children of young mothers also benefit when their mothers finish school. There is a strong correlation between the educational attainment of mothers who give birth in their teens and that of their children.

Grade: C+


  • The Office for Civil Rights should step up enforcement by targeting subtle forms of discrimination against pregnant and parenting students, such as informal counseling practices and use of excused absences.
  • OCR also should undertake a public education campaign to inform school administrators, teachers, parents, and students of the rights of pregnant and parenting students under Title IX.
  • Administrators in schools and postsecondary institutions should ensure that pregnant females are allowed full access to the curriculum unless there is a medical directive from the student's physician.
  • Deborah Brake, Goals 2000 and Pregnant and Parenting Teens: Making Education Reform Attainable for Everyone (National Women's Law Center, March 1995).
  • Deborah Brake, 'Legal Challenges to the Educational Barriers Facing Pregnant and Parenting Adolescents,' 28 Clearinghouse Review 141 (June 1994).
  • Center for Population Options, 'Adolescent Childbearing and Educational Attainment' (CPO fact sheet) (on file with the National Women's Law Center).
  • Lorrine Coleman, Presentation to the Congressional Women's Caucus, Gender Equity in Education Forum, March 7, 1996 (on file with the National Women's Law Center).
  • Margaret Nash and Margaret Dunkle, The Need for a Warming Trend: A Survey of the School Climate for Pregnant and Parenting Teens (May 1989).
  • OCR Letter of Finding to James L. Auter, Superintendent, Metropolitan School District of Martinsville, Indiana, OCR Docket No. 15–92–1183 (December 8, 1992) (on file with the National Women's Law Center).
  • St. Louis Board of Education Regulation, R5138 (approved June 26, 1990) (on file with the National Women's Law Center).
  • Division of Evaluation and Research, St. Louis Public Schools, the Continued Education Project, Parent–Infant Interaction Program, and Services for Pregnant and Parenting Students in the St. Louis Public Schools (May, 1991, revised October 1991) (on file with the National Women's Law Center).


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