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From Drop Outs to Diplomas: Supporting the Academic Success of Pregnant and Parenting Teenagers

Emily Carter,
Legal Assistant,
Women's Rights Project, ACLU
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June 27, 2013

Earlier this week, the United States Department of Education issued a guidance on supporting the academic success of pregnant and parenting students under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The last time the Department spoke on this issue was in a pamphlet, back in 1991. Twenty two years later, this guidance, which provides additional clarification, is sorely necessary. The dropout rate for pregnant and parenting students is astounding: “Fifty-one percent of young women who had a child before age 20 earned their high school diploma by age 22…Only 2 percent of young women who had a child before age 18 earned a college degree by age 30,” writes Seth Galanter, Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, in a Dear Colleague letter.

These statistics are eye-opening. It is crystal clear that too few pregnant and parenting students are able to complete their education, and it is imperative that school districts help these students adequately prepare for graduation and life beyond the classroom. It is unfair—and often illegal—to abandon these teenagers and their new families at a time when they need support the most.

Despite Title IX regulations that prohibit discrimination, there are still many students across the country who are punished or excluded from school activities after they become pregnant, who are forced into inadequate alternative education programs that do not sufficiently prepare them for college, or who are refused excused absences when they have to miss class for prenatal care or recovery from childbirth. In New Mexico, Shantelle Hicks was kicked out of her middle school after she told administrators that she was pregnant. She was allowed to return to school after the ACLU contacted the school administrators, only to be subsequently humiliated a few weeks later, when school administrators divulged that she was pregnant to the entire student body at an assembly. In Michigan, high school officials prohibited the publication of yearbook photographs of two students because they were visibly pregnant in the photographs. The treatment that these teenagers faced is illegal, but it’s unfortunately not uncommon.

The Department of Education’s guidance reminds school districts in plain English of their obligations under Title IX, and recommends additional steps they can take to prevent more students from dropping out. Some of the most critical clarifications include the following:

  • Schools cannot exclude pregnant students from participating in regular educational programs, including classes and afterschool activities.
  • Schools can implement special programs or classes for pregnant students, but participation must be voluntary and the content of the program or class must be comparable to what is offered in the regular program or curriculum.
  • Schools must excuse absences due to pregnancy or childbirth for as long as the student’s doctor deems the absences medically necessary.
  • When a student returns to school after giving birth, she must return to the same status she held prior to leaving, including being provided with make-up work.
  • Any special services provided to students with temporary medical conditions, including homebound instruction and tutoring, must also be offered to pregnant students.
  • Schools need to ensure that policies mandated by individual teachers are not discriminatory.
  • The harassment of pregnant and parenting students is prohibited.

The Department also recommends that administrators create school policies that specifically address the needs of parenting students, including creating absence policies that allow for parenting students—both mothers and fathers—to take their children to doctor’s appointments, and developing programs like prenatal, parenting, life skills, and dropout prevention programs that could help female and male students manage their academic and familial responsibilities.

Though the substance of the guidance concentrates on students in secondary school, Title IX regulations apply to federally assisted colleges and graduate schools as well. We hope that the Department of Education’s guidance will help educators and administrators at all levels across the country to understand that supporting pregnant and parenting students is not only good education policy—it’s the law.

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