Success in School: Efforts to Improve Education for Students who are Pregnant, Parenting or Survivors of Violence

Pregnancy and parenthood does not have to mark the end of education for young men and women. Yet, according to the National Women’s Law Center, nearly half of all female dropouts say that becoming a parent played a role in their decision to leave school, and 33% of female dropouts said pregnancy was a major factor. Additionally, 24% of male say that becoming a parent played a role in their leaving school, and 19% said it was a major factor.

Life becomes increasingly difficult for young parents who drop out of school. Only 51% of women who have a child before age 20 earn a high school diploma before age 22. Education prospects for pregnant or parenting young women become bleaker at the higher-education level. Two percent of women who have a child before age 18 earn a college degree by age 30. This lack of education means that young parents who drop out of school are more likely than their peers to be unemployed or underemployed, and those who obtain work, earn significantly less than their peers who graduate from high school.

These statistics and studies were recently reviewed at a Town Hall held by The Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health (ICAH) following the national release of the U.S. Department of Education’s recommendations to support the academic success of pregnant and parenting students under Title IX.

Image from ICAH

Image from ICAH

Before Congress passed Title IX in 1972, pregnant or parenting students were often discriminated against and sometimes dismissed from high school. Title IX prohibits sex discrimination, including on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, and parental status.

The recommendations in the Office of Civil Rights’ June 2013 publication include:

  • A pregnant student must be allowed to remain in her regular classes and school if she chooses. Any alternative arrangement must be comparable to the regular school program in academic, extracurricular and enrichment opportunities.
  • Schools must treat pregnant students in the same way that they treat other students with temporary medical conditions. Thus, any special services and arrangements in place must also be provided to pregnant students, such as at-home tutoring and extensions on assignments.
  • A school must excuse a student’s absences because of pregnancy or childbirth for as long as the student’s doctor deems the absences medically necessary. When a student returns to school, she must be allowed to return to the same academic and extracurricular status as before and have the opportunity to make up missed work. Similarly, parenting students must have excused absences when they need to care for sick children or take them to doctors’ appointments.
  • A school must provide assistant to a pregnant or parenting student, such as providing a larger desk or designating a private room for breastfeeding during the school day.
  • A school must be aware and ensure that their teachers and staff follow Title IX requirements and know their rights. This may involve collaborating with a school district’s Title IX coordinator to provide workshops for administrators on laws related to the provision of services to pregnant and parenting students. A grievance procedure must be in place and adhered to by students, parents, and employees.
  • Schools must work with pregnant and parenting students to create a graduation plan tailored to each student’s needs. This may include an academic credit-recovery option for parents who take time off from school or the option for dropouts to return to school.

Although the recommendations focus on secondary schools, the statues apply to all recipients of federal funds, including post-secondary institutions.

Efforts to pass state-level legislation to ensure these and other protections have also been ongoing — the Ensuring Success in Schools Act was first introduced in 2007. This legislation would promote successful school completion for pregnant and parenting students as well as those affected by domestic or sexual violence by:

  • enabling expectant and parenting students as well as student victims of domestic or sexual violence to succeed in school;
  • providing guidance to school districts in responding to and alleviating the barriers to academic success for students who are parents, expectant parents, or survivors of domestic or sexual violence;
  • encouraging the safe and meaningful involvement of parents of students.

A state-designated Ensuring Success in Schools Task Force issued a report in 2010 which made recommendations for accomodating and supporting pregnant and parenting students, but also made recommendations for policies affecting student survivors of domestic and sexual violence. According to the report:

Students who experience dating violence or sexual harassment have a hard time paying attention in school and often participate less in class or do not go to class at all, whether the violence happened on or off school grounds. Testimony at Task Force hearings indicated that student survivors of sexual violence experienced sharp declines in grades following incidence of violence. Witnesses told stories of schools that refused to respect orders of protection, denied reasonable accommodations requested by the survivor, placed the burden of change and compliance on the survivor and not the perpetrator, forced the survivor to repeat her story several times and in front of other people, denied the survivor basic confidentiality, and punished the survivor for minor offenses related to the violence while overlooking the acts of violence committed by the perpetrator. Students who are survivors of domestic and sexual violence want to stay in school and graduate, but fear for their safety and well-being often forces them into involuntary homeschooling or alternative programs or forces them to drop out entirely.

In response, the authors suggested that schools:

  • waive minimum attendance requirements for students who are survivors of domestic or sexual violence and recognize absences as valid if they are due to safety concerns, to having received victim services, or to recovering from physical or psychological injuries;
  • allow students to make up missed work and provide appropriate academic supports, including the option of homebound instruction;
  • allow in-school accommodations—including changing classes, lockers, lunch hours, or any other appropriate safety measures—as necessary to facilitate school attendance and participation;
  • honor any order of protection and civil no-contact order;
  • allow student survivors of violence to transfer to another school without penalty for reasons of safety and well-being; and
  • place the burden of compliance on the perpetrator whenever possible.
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