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Federal Court Orders Pregnant Student Reinstated in Honor Society

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A federal judge in Springfield, Ill., ruled last week that Brown County High School officials violated the civil rights of a pregnant student by expelling her from the school's chapter of the National Honor Society.

The judge ordered her reinstated in the organization.

U.S. District Judge J. Waldo Ackerman held in Wort v. Vierling that the student's dismissal in 1982 from the group violated her rights under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and under the equal-protection provisions of the 14th Amendment.

"The decision is a very important precedent, in making known to schools" what their duties are regarding the rights of pregnant students, said Margaret Kohn, an attorney with the National Women's Law Center.

School Changed Reasoning

The high-school officials had argued in court that the student, Loretta Wort, was dismissed from the local honor society in February 1982 because her attendance, grades, and participation in extracurricular activities had declined, and contended that her pregnancy was not a major factor in their decision.

But Judge Ackerman said the officials "offered [Ms. Wort's] pregnancy as the sole reason for her dismissal until they were presented with a legal opinion that states that pregnancy cannot be used as grounds for dismissal."

At Brown County High School, a faculty committee selects students for the honorary association based on "scholarship, leadership, service, and character," according to a court document. Ms. Wort, who had an A average at the time, was inducted into the society in March 1981.

Revision of Handbook

According to the 1983 revision of the "National Honor Society Handbook," pregnancy--either "within or without wedlock"--is not grounds for automatic dismissal but can be used as a "determinant of character ... but only if evidence of paternity is similarly indicative," said Ivan B. Gluckman, director of legal and legislative services for the National Association of Secondary School Prin-cipals (nassp), the society's sponsoring organization.

Judge Ackerman cited two reasons for ordering Ms. Wort's reinstatement in the honor society.

"Title IX's prohibition against gender discrimination applies to the nhs," he wrote, citing a 1983 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit--Iron Arrow Honor Society v. Heckler--that the Congress intended Title IX protections to cover honor societies, and Education Department regulations that prohibit discrimination on the basis of pregnancy.

Judge Ackerman also cited a 1975 decision by the Fifth Circuit Court in Andrews v. Drew Municipal Separate School District to support his conclusion that Ms. Wort's 14th Amendment rights were also violated: "The court [in Andrews] rejected the following rationale ...'(1) unwed parenthood is prima facie proof of immorality; (2) unwed parents are improper communal role models ... (3) employment of an unwed parent in a scholastic environment materially contributes to the problem of school-girl pregnancies."'

The Andrews case involved the school district's rule against hiring parents of an illegitimate child. This policy violated the 14th Amendment's promise of equal protection since "'by its nature, [it] could only be applied against females,"' Judge Ackerman quoted the court as saying.

The national principals' group sponsors the 20,000 local National Honor Society chapters but has no direct involvement with them and no specific position on the Wort case, according to Mr. Gluckman. But it does not participate in or administer the selection processes, which are left to the local districts.

National Group Not Named

The group was not named in the Wort suit and has asked to be dismissed as a defendant in a similar case pending in federal district court in Pennsylvania, Mr. Gluckman said.

The Illinois student's lawyers will now ask the court to require the school board to pay their fees. These "are not going to be insignificant," said Thomas E. Kennedy III, one of her lawyers.

The lawyer for the school district, George Lewis, was out of town last week and could not be reached for comment. But the superintendent of the Brown County schools, Michael Napp, was quoted in the local press as saying he opposed an appeal of the appeals court's ruling.

Similar Case Pending

A similar, highly publicized Pennsylvania case--Pfeiffer v. Marion Center Area School District--involving a pregnant student who was dismissed from the honor society in Marion Center, Pa., is pending in U.S. District Court in the Western District of Pennsylvania.

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