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You Have a Right to an Education: Breaking Down the Barriers Facing Pregnant and Parenting Teens in School

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March 22, 2012

By Alexandra Smith, ACLU of New Mexico

This week, as part of Women’s History Month, ACLU staff across the country will participate in a blog series about Title IX highlighting some of the core areas of educational equality that this landmark statute covers.

Recently, there has been a barrage of media coverage on the so-called war on women. There’s one form of hostility against young women that we don’t often talk about: the shocking way teenage moms and moms-to-be are treated while they are just trying to do what’s best for themselves and their families by getting an education.

Pregnant and parenting teens are often treated poorly by teachers, administrators, and their peers. The students we’ve spoken to told us how their teachers would tell them that they were going to drop out, that they were bad examples, or that giving them the help they needed was futile because they would not remain in school. Other students would tease them, and nobody in the schools would take steps to stop this behavior.

In one shocking example, the ACLU of New Mexico just filed a lawsuit with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project on behalf of 15-year-old girl who was kicked out of school when she told administrators she was pregnant. Although she was readmitted after the ACLU intervened on her behalf, school officials then publically humiliated her by announcing her pregnancy to an assembly of her entire middle school in order to shame her and try to force her to leave school.

In short, if you thought the days of punishing, isolating and stereotyping young women who become pregnant were behind us, you are sadly mistaken. Although Title IX regulations prohibit discrimination or harassment on the basis of pregnancy, pregnant and parenting teens are often mistreated and even pushed out of school entirely.

In New Mexico, this problem is particularly pervasive. New Mexico has the second highest teen birth rate in the nation, and approximately 40 percent of girls drop out of school. Yet most schools have no policies that address pregnant and parenting students, and their attendance policies do not take into account the needs of these students. For example, if a student is ill, that is considered an excused absence, but if a student’s child is ill, that is not. Additionally, there is no provision for student absences for child birth or recovery. It’s also difficult for students to make up work they may have missed when they give birth, are put on bed rest, or have a caesarian birth.

This pervasive discrimination makes it more difficult for pregnant and parenting teens to stay in school. These students need encouragement to complete their educations because they are already facing the additional challenges of parenting, as well as their school responsibilities. This is not only the law—it’s also good policy: students who receive their high school diplomas have more career opportunities, earn more, and are better able to support themselves and their children.

The ACLU of New Mexico has been working to eliminate the barriers pregnant and parenting teens face in completing their educations.

We proposed legislation to create a task force to study the barriers pregnant and parenting teens face in education. We hosted a Title IX celebration at the state legislature attended by over 50 pregnant and parenting teens from around the state to draw attention to this issue. These brave students stood up and told their legislators that they were teen parents who were committed to receiving an education, and deserved equal treatment and encouragement. But although the bill passed unanimously through committees and the state senate, the bill died in the house when the legislative session ended before a vote could be taken to pass it.

While this was disappointing, we are continuing this important work. Currently, the ACLU of New Mexico is assembling a coalition of school administrators, teen parent program directors, and community organizations to look at ways to break these barriers.

Title IX is intended to ensure that everyone has the same educational opportunities, regardless of gender. It is time to make sure that all girls see the benefit of this landmark law.

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