Women's History Month gives us an opportunity to reflect on the great strides women and girls have made toward achieving equal rights and equal treatment. Yet, in some ways we are still stuck in the past — as I was reminded of recently when I had the opportunity to step into classrooms in urban Seattle and hear the stories of pregnant and parenting students who are being pressured to drop out of school. As I stand in front of these young women and share information about their rights under Title IX, jaws drop and hands shoot up with questions.
"You mean, I didn't have to leave school after my baby was born? I could've fought to stay?"
"My counselor told me it just wasn't going to work for me at my school. I believed her, but maybe she was wrong."
"So, you're saying that what my principal did was against the law?"
These are the days that I really love my job, because I have the privilege of explaining that for over 35 years, it has been illegal under Title IX and many state laws to exclude pregnant and parenting students from school. And the pregnant and parenting students aren't the only ones empowered by this information: teachers, nurses, social service providers and others are always shocked to hear that the law actually is in place to protect the pregnant or parenting student. Yet schools continue to push these students out with impunity. Pregnancy is the number-one reason girls drop out of school. Approximately 70 percent of teenage girls who give birth leave school. And, evidence suggests that illegal discrimination is a major contributing factor to this high dropout rate.
Girls from around the country tell the same stories: When they got pregnant or had a child, a principal, counselor, or teacher told them they'd have to leave school. In many cases, pregnant and parenting students are told outright that they can't stay in school or must go to an alternative school.
Sometimes the discrimination is more subtle. Schools refuse to give excused absences for doctor's appointments, teachers refuse to allow make-up work, counselors coerce students into substandard alternative schools or staff excludes them from school activities based on "morality" codes or makes disparaging, discouraging and disapproving comments.
More than any other group of high school dropouts, young women who leave due to pregnancy report that they would have stayed in school if they had received greater support from the adults at school. The young women I meet support this finding. They want to stay in school, they have fought to come back, they are doing everything they can to balance parenting and completing their education – despite being told by the adults at school that "it just won't work."
The importance of keeping these young women in school is undeniable, and the consequences of dropping out are devastating and long-lasting. Dropouts are much more likely than those who graduate to be unemployed, live in poverty, enter the criminal justice system, and have children who drop out from high school and enter the same cycle of poverty themselves.
As with many forms of discrimination, the impact of practices that push pregnant and parenting students out of school falls more harshly on students of color. The pregnancy rate for African-American and Hispanic girls ages 14 to 19 is three times higher than it is for their white/non-Hispanic peers. Consequently, they are more likely to be subject to the harsh practices of schools that require or coerce these young women to cut their education short.
Ensuring that these young women stay in school and have the opportunity to complete their education is not just good social policy, it's the law. Whether their pregnancy is unintended or by choice, these young women are entitled to stay in school and we must continue to work to remove the discriminatory barriers that stand in their way.
As Andrea Lynch wrote in an excellent series on adolescent parenting on RH Reality Check a few years ago:
"Having a child as a teenager is undeniably difficult--just ask any woman who has done it herself. And providing women with the tools to avoid or delay pregnancy until they truly feel ready is undoubtedly a worthy policy goal. But the question remains: in circumstances where adolescent pregnancy is not prevented, or when adolescents decide to become parents, how far are we willing to go to ensure that young mothers have the spaces not just to survive, but to flourish? How can we honor their right to keep learning...?"
So, as we celebrate Women's History Month and the progress women and girls have made, let's also remind ourselves of barriers that still exist and the important work we have yet to do.
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