Schools Said Failing To Observe Educational Rights of Pregnant Pupils
Washington--Schools are failing to meet the special needs of pregnant students and are systematically violating their federally guaranteed educational rights, said representatives of education and social-service agencies attending a conference here last week.
"We have problems in the area of adolescent pregnancy--problems of omission and discrimination," said William F. Pierce, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which sponsored the conference, "Adolescent Pregnancy and Parenting: A Statewide Partnership for School Involvement," in conjunction with the National Association of State Boards of Education.
More than 60 representatives from state education, health, and social-service agencies gathered to discuss the special problems of educating and providing support services, such as career counseling, financial assistance, and health care, to the increasing number of pregnant teen-agers and teen-agers with children. Seven Mid-Atlantic states were represented.
If current patterns prevail, according to statistics from the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, four out of 10 girls who are now 14 will become pregnant during their teens; two in 10 will give birth, and 90 percent of those teen-agers will keep their babies.
How to provide an appropriate, nondiscriminatory education to pregnant teen-agers and teen-agers who keep their children was a major concern of those participating in the conference.
"Just last week, a teen-age parent was denied membership in the National Honor Society," said Phyllis Blaunstein, executive director of nasbe, speaking in reference to Arlene Pfeiffer, a student in Marion Center, Pa., whose school board voted Jan. 16 to revoke her membership in the National Honor Society.
Ms. Pfeiffer, who is 17 years old, unmarried, and the mother of a 5-month-old daughter, received notice last October from the faculty council that administers the National Honor Society at her school that she was no longer eligible for the society and could not participate in the annual induction ceremony.
After an appeal, the school board upheld the council's decision, maintaining that Ms. Pfeiffer was not dropped from the society because of her pregnancy, but because she had not maintained its standards of leadership and character. Ms. Pfeiffer will file a complaint with the state Human Relations Commission, her lawyer said.
Such occurrences are not uncommon, according to several experts who addressed the group.
"Schools have systematically violated Title IX [of the Education Amendments of 1972], which prohibits discrimination against pregnant teens," said Margaret C. Dun-kle, chairman of the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education and former special assistant for education legislation at the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
Although school officials today rarely engage in overt discrimination, such as expelling pregnant students, there is evidence that many schools have policies or practices that limit the educational opportunities of these students, Ms. Dunkle told conference participants.
Ms. Dunkle related anecdotal evidence from students who reported forms of "subtle" discrimination. "A New Jersey student said, 'If a girl is pregnant, she can't participate in graduation ceremonies.' Another noted that a pregnant girl was removed from the basketball team. 'Even after she had her baby, they wouldn't let her play,' the student said."
Ms. Dunkle also pointed to survey results contained in "The Response of the Schools to Teen-Age Pregnancy and Parenthood," a 1981 study prepared for the National Institute of Education.
The survey found that some school administrators regard visibly pregnant students as "morally inferior as well as intellectually and socially disadvantaged. ... For example, one junior-high-school principal said, 'A diploma will make no difference to these girls."'
One reason pregnant students continue to be discriminated against, conference panelists said, is that many school officials are not aware of the broad scope of Title IX, which states: "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance." The statute's implementing regulations explicitly bar discrimination "on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, termination of pregnancy, or recovery." (See related story on page 7.)
Yet, said Gail Zellman, the researcher who conducted the nie study, ''To a man, superintendents said, 'Title IX--that sports thing."'
In addition to the legal obligations of schools, the serious educational and economic consequences of teen-age pregnancy and parenthood make it an important issue for state and federal service agencies, Susan Bailey, director of the ccsso Resource Center on Sex Equity, told participants.
Statistics show that teen-age pregnancy severely limits a young woman's educational and economic future, Ms. Bailey said. In a sample of students matched by level of academic ability, racial and socioeconomic background, and expectations regarding college, a woman who had her first child by age 18 was found to be half as likely to earn her high-school diploma as a woman who waited to have children, she said. Young fathers were about 70 percent as likely to get their high-school diplomas. And once those students drop out, "they fall through the cracks,'' several speakers said. Not only does their education stop, but they no longer have access to school personnel, such as counselors, teachers, and school nurses, who might be able to refer them to other agencies for health care and financial assistance.
The age at which a woman has her first child is also closely related to her level of income. More than 30 percent of women who have their first child before age 16 are from families with incomes below the poverty level, compared to 14 percent of all women, Ms. Bailey said.
Government statistics also reveal that families headed by young mothers are seven times more likely to be poor than other families, another speaker pointed out. In 1975, about half of the $9.4-billion budget for federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children went to families in which a woman had given birth while a teen-ager.
Obstacles to Change
Conference participants spent much of the two days discussing ways in which state agencies could work together to overcome obstacles that make it difficult to provide educational, health, and social services to pregnant and parenting teen-agers.
Although problems vary from state to state, the participants generally agreed that the stigma attached to unmarried mothers affects an agency's ability to provide services to the young women.
"Without a change in public attitude, money will not flow," said Margaret Marston, a member of the Virginia State Board of Education. Ms. Marston added that much of the necessary money must come from state legislators--a problem, she said, because "90 percent of them are male, lawyers, and over the age of 65. What do they know about teen-age pregnancy?"
School officials, particularly principals, can play an important role in helping pregnant and parenting adolescents, several speakers said.
A critical step in setting up health clinics within four public high schools in St. Paul, Minn., was obtaining the support of the schools' administrators and health officers, said Dr. Carol McKay, a physician who assists the project. Through the school clinics, students are provided a range of medical services, including pregnancy testing and prescriptions for contraceptives.
"If the principal supports the idea, the services are there. If not, they are not," said another speaker.