Title IX Promise Unmet for Pregnant Students
Law's applications often unrecognized
When Amelia Erickson learned she was pregnant at age 14, she was determined to keep working toward her high school diploma. But it wasn't easy. After her son was born and she returned to school in Meridian, Idaho, she asked to step out a few times a day to breast-feed him at a nearby day care.
The school said no.
So for a year, Ms. Erickson tried working at home on her own, taking courses online, struggling, and nearly quitting her studies. Her son, now almost 2, "would be perfectly fine. Then as soon as I would turn around to do my homework, he would start crying," she recalled.
That wasn't how Title IX was supposed to work. Passed 40 years ago to ensure all students have equal educational opportunities, the law is most often associated with student athletics. But it was intended to apply to many aspects of students' schooling by strengthening the legal rights of pregnant teenagers, victims of sexual harassment, and others who may not get a fair shot at an education because of their gender.
While access to schooling for pregnant and parenting teenagers has improved since the law's passage, data from 2006 show that only half of women who gave birth as teenagers get a high school diploma by age 22, compared with 89 percent of those who didn't.
One reason: Too often, pregnant and parenting teenagers such as Ms. Erickson are deprived of equal opportunities, in part because of ignorance about Title IX's application to this group of students, experts say.
"The lack of knowledge surrounding pregnant students means that in many cases the promise of the law is not being fulfilled," said Erin Prangley, the associate director for government relations of the American Association of University Women, in Washington.
Likewise, recent statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that about one in 10 high school students said they had been hit or otherwise hurt on purpose by a boyfriend or girlfriend; about 7 percent said they had been forced to have sex.
And, as recently as 2011, Michigan had a law banning pregnant students from getting the same at-home educational services as students who might be unable to attend school for any other medical condition. The National Women's Law Center in Washington worked on undoing that ban and one in Georgia in 2009.
Call for Data
To get a better handle on how extensive such disparities are, Ms. Prangley's group and others are pushing for the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights to collect data about pregnant and parenting teenagers and how schools serve them.
"Ask the schools point blank: Does your school provide child care, transportation, or tutoring? Does your school track data on girls who become pregnant?" she said.
Similar recommendations are in a report out this week, "Title IX at 40" from the National Coalition of Women & Girls in Education, which includes the AAUW.
In January, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the OCR this year would issue guidance about pregnant students' rights, a point Russlynn H. Ali, the department's assistant secretary for civil rights, repeated in an interview with Education Week.
"We've heard from lots of advocacy groups that say there's a real concern," Ms. Ali said. "How do we ensure that young mothers get the education they're entitled to?"
Meanwhile, other federal policy makers are proposing measures to bolster support services for pregnant teenagers in schools. A bill introduced last August by U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., the Pregnant and Parenting Students Access to Education Act, would require school districts to provide academic support services for pregnant and parenting students and require the collection and reporting of data on pregnant and parenting students.
Eventually, Ms. Erickson found the Marian Pritchett School in Boise. A partnership between the Salvation Army and the Boise school district, it provides on-site day care, housing for women 18 and older, a social worker, and pregnancy and parenting classes. Students can miss school when necessary far more than at a typical high school, said head teacher Deborah Hedden-Nicely.
Ms. Erickson said she's on track to graduate next year.
"The whole school is a huge support system," she said of Marian Pritchett. "It's all girls, so there's drama. ...But if you're having a bad day and crying in the cafeteria like I was, everyone will come up to you and rub your back ... Even if you hate the girl.
"It's the mother in us," Ms. Erickson said.
Violence and Harassment
The OCR has been more active in cases of sexual harassment and violence. The agency has launched a number of investigations into how colleges and districts have handled some of these cases. They include the 2010 sexual assault of a student at a District of Columbia high school and the brutal rape of a student waiting for a ride after the prom by multiple men in Contra Costa, Calif., in 2009. That episode went on for about two hours before anyone watching called police.
Both cases are still open, Ms. Ali said, because they have evolved from looking at a single school to the entire district.
Last year, her agency issued guidance about how schools must handle and investigate incidents of sexual violence, citing Title IX's protections against discrimination. During the 2007-08 school year, there were 800 rapes on elementary, middle, and high school campuses and 3,800 cases of sexual battery aside from rape, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
The guidance noted, for example, that schools don't have to wait for the conclusion of a criminal investigation before beginning a Title IX probe. And while that inquiry is in progress, schools can take steps, including making sure a victim and suspected aggressor aren't in the same classes and providing medical and counseling services.
Even if an incident occurs off campus, a school isn't absolved of responsibility because the incident could create a hostile environment for the victim on campus.
That guidance and another 2010 document about schools' responsibilities in cases of bullying and harassment "were really welcome," said Lara S. Kaufmann, the senior counsel for the National Women's Law Center, although the guidance has raised concern among school district advocates.
Drawing attention to these issues and their ties to civil rights laws and Title IX has triggered changes in school policies across the country. Still, there is work to be done, Ms. Kaufmann said.
Ms. Prangley cited the 2009 suicide of Hope Witsell. Ms. Witsell was an 8th grader at Beth Shields Middle School in Ruskin, Fla., who was punished after sending a topless photo of herself to a boy she liked, a photo that quickly went viral at her school and another nearby. She was suspended for a week and forbidden to run for a spot as the Future Farmers of America student adviser for her school the next school year. But when she was at school, as one newspaper account describes it, her friends escorted her "down hallways like human shields, fending off insults such as 'whore' and 'slut.' " Ms. Witsell eventually hanged herself.
"Nobody provided the protection she'd need [from what] we see as sexual harassment," Ms. Prangley said, noting that the 197,000-student Hillsborough County district that includes Ms. Witsell's school was among 14 of the 20 largest districts her organization cited for reporting zero incidents of bullying and harassment in the 2009-10 school year.
"We're not saying the districts are horrible people for not reporting data," she said. "What we don't expect is districts to turn a blind eye to these harassment issues and pretend like they don't exist."
Vol. 31, Issue 35, Pages 18-19Published in Print: June 13, 2012, as Title IX Falls Short of Promise for Pregnant Students