As instructional leaders, principals are charged with the responsibility of creating and managing an environment that is conducive to learning for all students. Pregnant and parenting students often must balance the responsibilities of school, work, and home. These students might also be struggling with finding reliable access to health insurance, transportation, and childcare. Without proper supports in place, pregnant and parenting students are at an increased risk of not graduating. 

To better understand how pregnant and parenting students are affected by these unique challenges, consider the following statistics: 

  • In 2006, only half of women who gave birth as teenagers received a high school diploma by age 22, compared with 89 percent of those who did not. 
  • Only two percent of young mothers who had a child before age 18 earned a college degree by age 30. 
  • Many teen mothers who dropped out before being pregnant returned to school after being pregnant. Research shows that up to 25 percent of female dropouts return to school when they are pregnant.

Pregnant and parenting students have expressly protected legal rights to attend public school and receive certain accommodations. Consider the following recommendations.

Title IX

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination based on sex, which includes pregnancy and parental status. All public and private schools receiving any federal funds must comply with this federal law. Under Title IX, it is illegal for schools to exclude a pregnant or parenting student from participating in any part of an educational program.

Title IX’s regulations require that pregnant students have access to education; if an alternative school is available, they get to choose whether to attend this school or the school they attended when they became pregnant. If the student chooses the alternative school, it must be comparable to the original placement.

The Pregnant and Parenting Students Access to Education Act of 2015 (PPSAE) was introduced in Congress in February 2015. If passed, the PPSAE would provide support for states and school districts to assist with services for pregnant and parenting students in order to help them remain in school and to graduate college and/or become career ready. 

Likewise, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) distributed a document in 2013 to help support the academic success of pregnant and parenting students. This document highlights that pregnant students should be able to participate in extracurricular activities without submitting a doctor’s note (unless the school requires a doctor’s note from all students who have a physical or emotional condition). Additionally, school officials must provide reasonable adjustments for pregnant students (e.g., larger desks, elevator access, frequent trips to the restroom). Further, this article reminds school officials that they must excuse a student’s absences due to pregnancy or related conditions if the student’s doctor finds that the absences are medically necessary. 

If a pregnant or parenting student has faced discrimination, s/he can file an internal complaint with the school under the Title IX grievance procedures; file a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights within 180 days from when the discrimination took place; or file a complaint in federal or state court.

A Relevant Case

One recent federal case involved the Catherine Ferguson Academy (CFA), a school designed specifically for pregnant and parenting students that was operated by Detroit Public Schools (DPS). The school was not required, although evidence indicated that some students felt pushed to attend the school. While the school was operated by CFA, it had a graduation rate of 90 percent, and 100 percent of its graduates were accepted at either community colleges or universities and received financial aid. The lawsuit alleged that DPS made changes to the management of the school that decreased the quality of educational opportunity for students.

Specifically, in 2011, DPS announced that management of CFA would be transferred to the Blanche Kelso Bruce Academy (BKBA), a strict-​discipline charter school. The school environment changed drastically in the 2012–13 school year. 

The plaintiffs argued that the various defendants violated Title IX by depriving students of an educational opportunity that was comparable to that offered to their nonpregnant and/or parenting peers. The court allowed the plaintiffs to formally amend their complaint to include the Title IX allegations but denied the ability to bring the Title IX claims against certain defendant board members. In so holding, the court specifically provided that the plaintiffs’ complaint clearly established that the education being offered was “inferior to the education plaintiffs’ male and nonpregnant female counterparts are receiving at DPS.” In a later proceeding, however, the school district’s motion to dismiss was granted.Even though the case only addresses early procedural matters, it is an illustrative example. If a school district offers educational programming for pregnant and parenting students that is separate but fails to meet the Title IX language of being comparable to that offered to nonpregnant and parenting student peers, it may raise legal concerns. 

Sidebar: Recommendations for Principals

Referrals for Additional Services 
Principals can help support pregnant and parenting students by educating themselves and their students about resources that are available in the community. 

Flexibility and Excused-absence Policies for Sick Children
Principals should consider flexible options that include having students make up any missed work while still being permitted to care for and raise their child.

Breastfeeding/Pumping Areas
Principals can support pregnant and parenting students by providing time, a private area, and refrigerated storage space for breastfeeding mothers so that they may pump during the school day and save the milk for their babies.

Data Tracking
Principals should regularly collect data and monitor the effectiveness of any intervention programs that are implemented to help pregnant and parenting students.

Suzanne E. Eckes is a professor at Indiana University where she has published numerous articles and book chapters on school legal issues. She is a co-editor of The Principal’s Legal Handbook.

Michelle Gough McKeown is the interim executive director and general counsel for the Indiana Charter School Board as well as a Commissioner for the Indiana Civil Rights Commission. 

Keshia Seitz is an as associate director of eLearning at Five-Star Technology Solutions, Sellersburg, IN.