For the first time in nearly 50 years, the U.S. Department of Education plans to explicitly spell out protections for pregnant and parenting students and school employees—an evolution advocates say may be more important than ever in a post-Roe v. Wade world.
The Education Department’s proposed Title IX rules made headlines for their historic protections of LGBTQ students when they were released in June. But they also include clarifications on school officials’ obligations to not discriminate against pregnant and parenting students and employees, adding detail to rules which haven’t been updated since 1975.
The proposed regulations say schools are obligated to ensure that no students who are experiencing those conditions are left out of educational programs and activities. They also provide clearer definitions of pregnancy-related conditions and emphasize that schools must provide modifications for students and employees experiencing those conditions.
They would also explicitly prevent schools from discriminating against students and staff who have sought, received, or are recovering from an abortion, and provide clear rules on how schools can address discrimination against those individuals.
Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the right to an abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the proposed rules have taken on new significance. A group of 60 Democrat congressional lawmakers sent a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, urging the Education Department to use its authority under Title IX to protect students who are pregnant, have an abortion, or are parenting.
“By striking down nearly 50 years of precedent and paving the way for state laws that criminalize the termination of a pregnancy and have already stripped reproductive freedom from millions of women, the Supreme Court has taken a step toward denying the educational and privacy rights of students nationwide,” the members of Congress, led by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., said in the July 21 letter.
Pregnant and parenting students often face discrimination
Pregnancy and parenting aren’t easy for anyone. For students trying to complete their education, the experiences can be demoralizing, said Joya Cleveland, director of Strong Tomorrows, a program dedicated to providing guidance, support, and services to pregnant and parenting students at Tulsa Public Schools in Oklahoma.
While 90 percent of women who do not give birth during adolescence graduate from high school, only 50 percent of teen mothers are expected to receive a high school diploma by the time they’re 22 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Teen parents are even less likely to graduate college, with only about 10 percent of teen moms completing a two- or four-year college degree program, according to Youth.gov, a government website that collects information about youth-related issues and programs from federal agencies.
A variety of factors, such as child-care access, stigma, medical complications, and financial insecurity stand in the way of pregnant and parenting students when trying to finish high school, even though they often find themselves motivated to complete their degree, Cleveland said.
“After becoming parents something clicks for them as far as the need to succeed and the desire to want to model for their child, and they become better students,” she said. “They become a better person.”
But without support, like the connections to social workers, parenting classes, access to doctors and college- and career-readiness workshops offered through Strong Tomorrows, Cleveland said students are left facing an uphill battle and are sometimes encouraged to enroll in alternative public schools or to get their GED credential.
The proposed Title IX rules would require school employees to connect pregnant and parenting students with a Title IX coordinator, empowering students with the resources to know their rights. That clarification is huge because one of the main barriers students face is a lack of knowledge about their own protections, said Shiwali Patel, director of justice for student survivors and senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center.
“Many students don’t even know that they are protected under Title IX to begin with,” Patel said. “They wouldn’t even know that they can advocate for themselves and advocate for accommodations and protections in school.”
The law also requires parents of students experiencing pregnancy-related conditions to be notified about their students’ rights, which allows for parents to advocate for students experiencing discrimination, she said.
New definitions for pregnancy and pregnancy-related conditions
Since 1975, Title IX has applied to students experiencing pregnancy and pregnancy-related conditions, but the current law leaves gaps in its definitions of those conditions.
The Education Department’s proposed definition of “pregnancy-related conditions” includes pregnancy, childbirth, termination of pregnancy, and lactation. Medical conditions related to pregnancy and the recovery from pregnancy, childbirth, termination of pregnancy, and lactation would be considered in the definition as well. That means the rules would preventing schools from discriminating against students who experience common conditions like extreme nausea, high blood pressure, and swelling of breast tissue. The new rules would also explicitly prevent schools from discriminating against students who experienced any of the conditions in the past.
The Education Department’s decision to include the termination of pregnancy and lactation in the definition, and provide clear processes so schools can meet their responsibilities to students experiencing those conditions, is especially notable in the context of a post-Roe world, Patel said.
“While Title IX doesn’t guarantee or prohibit abortion access to students, it does grant students the right to learn in an environment free from discrimination based on their decision to obtain an abortion,” she said. “That means schools can’t remove someone from an educational program or activity just because they sought, obtained, or are recovering from an abortion.”
The rules also clarify that it’s not enough for schools to allow pregnant or parenting students to participate in education programs or activities; they must also provide modifications so students have access to an equal education.
For example, the rules state that schools must provide breastfeeding employees and students with break times and sanitary spaces for lactation.
That clarification is especially important as teenagers often struggle with stigma surrounding breastfeeding, Cleveland said. The Tulsa district has private lactation spaces in every high school that participates in the Strong Tomorrows program.
“That’s a medical problem and that’s also a social problem. It’s embarrassing if [the student] wasn’t released and now the milk lets down and she’s in class,” Cleveland said. “For some areas who aren’t maybe as progressive or willing to accommodate the students, now that’s something that the students and families and community can stand by and say, ‘This [lack of accommodation] is not an option anymore.’”
Comprehensive programs and sex education are key to supporting students
Title IX isn’t the limit of what schools can do to support pregnant and parenting students. Many districts, like the Tulsa district, go far beyond what Title IX requires by providing comprehensive services for students experiencing pregnancy and parenting.
Through Strong Tomorrows, the students in Tulsa have connections to social workers to help them navigate welfare, insurance, and medical care for their children. They also attend regular workshop classes that teach them about parenting. Some districts, like Tulsa, provide remote learning and tutoring programs for students who miss weeks of in-person class time due to pregnancy-related conditions. Tulsa includes its pregnant and parenting students in a program called Homebound, which allows students who aren’t able to attend classes in person for extended periods of time because of sickness or other medical reasons to take online classes and work with school case managers at home.
The programs and services can often be the keys to academic and, later, professional success for parenting students, said JeNeen Anderson, senior director of health equity at Power to Decide, a national campaign to prevent unplanned pregnancy.
“These programs can actually provide these students with the peer support and encouragement to help them from feeling isolation,” Anderson said. “They can also help to reduce the dropout rate, provide comprehensive care, and improve the health of the actual student parent along with their child.”
Even more than providing support for pregnant and parenting students, Anderson said schools should provide comprehensive sex education that teaches students about healthy relationships, consent, sexuality, and sexual health. As states enact laws to limit abortion access, those preventive measures are even more important, Anderson said.
“There are things that we wanted schools to be doing and we’ve been trying, working towards schools doing even before Roe v. Wade,” she said. “Now we’re at an even more crucial point because of the implications [Roe’s reversal] has on other reproductive health [issues] like birth control and access to birth control.”
The proposed Title IX rules have been posted on the Federal Register for public comment and have received over 24,000comments so far. People who are interested in sharing public comments on the rules can do so by visiting regulations.gov on or before Sept. 12.
A version of this article appeared in the August 17, 2022 edition of Education Week as Schools Must Protect Pregnant Students. Proposed Federal Rules Would Spell Out How