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Study: Schools Violating Rights of Pregnant Girls

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A growing number of schools are offering special services for the hundreds of thousands of pregnant and parenting students in the system, but many schools may be violating their civil rights by limiting their educational opportunities, a study by a Washington research and policy group has concluded.

The study found that administrators are often unaware of their obligation under federal civil-rights law to treat students who are pregnant or have children no differently than students with other medical conditions.

"There is rarely malice or bad intent" on the part of administrators and staff members who make decisions about pregnant or parenting students, "but bad behavior is fairly common," said Margaret C. Dunkle, executive director of the Equality Center, which produced the report.

"Some people who feel they are doing the best for these students are in fact limiting their opportunities the most," she said. "It's important for these people to take another look at what they're doing."

The report, based on a survey of practices and attitudes in 12 geographically and demographically diverse schools, revealed that the practices in nine of the schools constituted potential violations of Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972, which prohibit sex discrimination in schools that receive federal aid.

Some of the more common violations, the report says, include channeling pregnant and parenting students into specific courses of study, not allowing excused absences for prenatal or postnatal care or problems associated with pregnancy, and not reinstating students to the status they held at the beginning of a leave for pregnancy.

In addition, some schools are discouraging pregnant and parenting students from running for student government or club offices, and de-nying them favorable recommendations for jobs or further education, the report says.

"The school climate--measured by school policies and practices as well as staff attitudes--is chilly for pregnant and parenting students,'' it says.

'Numbers Are Staggering'

The study, "The Need for a Warming Trend: A Survey of the School Cli4mate for Pregnant and Parenting Teens," is also one of only a few efforts recently by researchers to assess a problem that is widely recognized as a major contributing factor in the nation's dropout problem.

"The numbers are staggering," said Margaret Nash, project associate of the Equality Center and co-author of the report.

"Each year," she said, "more than 300,000 girls 18 or younger become pregnant--and more than 40 percent of all girls who drop out of school give pregnancy or marriage as their reason."

Despite this fact, many administrators and teachers do not plan for the needs of pregnant and parenting students when devising dropout programs, the researchers said.

Four-fifths of the school employees surveyed for the report said that their school's principal never or only sometimes mentioned pregnancy and teen parenting in the context of dropouts.

"People are looking at teenage pregnancy in other contexts, and they're looking at school dropouts, but they aren't putting the two together," Ms. Dunkle said. "It's a real blind spot on the part of administrators and policymakers."

These findings bear out the conclusions of a report issued last summer by the Academy for Educational Development's Support Center for Educational Equity for Young Mothers.

That study, which surveyed policies and practices of 11 urban school districts, found that "pregnant and parenting students are absent from most dropout-prevention plans, even though most administrators said that pregnancy and parenting is a major reason why female students leave school."

"Some administrators noted that, despite changes in attitudes in recent years, this population is still considered 'bad' in many quarters and too controversial to help," the aed report said.

'Morally Inferior'?

The Equality Center's study also found evidence that some teachers and administrators "think pregnant and parenting students are morally or intellectually inferior."

On the other hand, researchers on both studies noted, most schools also have a group of employees who will go out of their way to give the extra flexibility and assistance that pregnant and parenting students need to stay in school.

Examining the attitudes of teachers and administrative staff members is crucial to understanding the treatment of pregnant and parenting students, researchers said, because they often make important decisions regarding these students without the guidance of any comprehensive school-district policy.

Only 25 percent of the schools surveyed by the Equality Center provided copies of official policies regarding pregnant and parenting students and such subjects as absenteeism, excused absences, home instruction, suspensions or expulsions, criteria for participating in extracurricular activities and athletics, and requirements for medical documentation.

And the aed study noted that, when administrators were asked to devise solutions for helping these students, they usually considered expanding programming or adding new services, rather than adapting existing policies.

Many school districts have created separate programs, or in some cases, separate schools, for pregnant students, researchers said. Others have bolstered counseling efforts to meet some of the needs of pregnant and parenting students or made allowances for the flexible scheduling needed by such students.

Some of the efforts, however well intentioned, may also violate federal laws, the Equality Center report says.

In three of the schools surveyed, respondents admitted that they always used federal special-education funds for pregnant or parenting students who are not otherwise disabled. This is not an allowable use of funding available under the Education of the Handicapped Act, the report charges.

Although differential treatment of pregnant and parenting students has long been viewed as a sex-discrimination issue by federal enforcement agencies and the courts, few of the cases concerned the more subtle forms of discrimination alleged by the Equality Center report.

Issue Is Not Tracked

Civil-rights experts familiar with this area recalled a few previous findings by the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights that declared illegal such blatant discrimination as excluding pregnant students from school or segregrating them through mandatory assignment to a program separate from other students.

Gary Curran, chief spokesman for ocr, said the office has not published any guidelines on the protections offered by Title IX to pregnant and parenting students.

"It's not a terribly big issue," he said. "This is the first time I've heard anything about it."

The ocr does not track the number or disposition of complaints filed against school districts on behalf of pregnant and parenting students, he added. "I don't think our computer tracking system has that as a subset," he said.

Mr. Curran refused a reporter's repeated requests to speak to a staff member who might be more familiar with the issue. "Just put us down as a 'no comment,"' he said.

Few students, or even their adult advocates, understand that they have legal recourse to challenge school policies and practices that deny them opportunities available to other students, the Equality Center researchers say.

"The period of pregnancy is a very busy, vulnerable time, and these students are preoccupied with other concerns," Ms. Dunkle said. "To ex8pect that they would also have the information, sophistication, energy, and resources to file complaints is probably pretty unrealistic.''

New Law Said Key

The passage of the Civil Rights Restoration Act last year has heightened the importance of this issue, Ms. Dunkle said, because it bars discrimination in all school policies and programs, not just those that receive federal funding.

The Equality Center has produced a set of guidelines, in the form of questions and answers, entitled "Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Title IX & Pregnant & Parenting Students."

The ocr has declined repeated requests to disseminate the guidelines, citing funding constraints. In a letter dated March 21, 1989, William C. Bostic, ocr's deputy assistant secretary for operations, also stated that the ocr could not publish the guidelines "without compromising our independence or credibility as an enforcement agency."

Mr. Curran added that "every case has a separate fact pattern. We'll investigate every complaint that we get."

Copies of the Equality Center's publications can be obtained by writing Equality Center, 220 Eye St. N.E., Suite 250, Washington, D.C. 20002.

In addition to its earlier study, "Improving Educational Opportunities for Pregnant and Parenting Students," the aed is planning to publish a book this summer entitled A Stitch in Time, Helping Young Mothers Complete High School.

Information can be obtained by writing The Support Center for Educational Equity for Young Mothers, Academy for Educational Development, 100 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10011.

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