Teens Who Parent Still Need School

Anna Clark

The nation with the highest adolescent pregnancy and birth rates in the industrialized world has not figured out how to meet the educational needs of pregnant and parenting teens. In fact, we're going the other direction - gutting the too-rare programs that have developed to meet the unique needs of teen parents.

"It’s a 24-hour job," Bristol Palin, young mom and newly
anointed teen ambassador of the Candies Foundation, said on Good Morning
America on May 6. "Your priorities completely change when you have a baby." Her
life, she suggested, is consumed by caring for her baby and trying to finish
high school.

But in Palin’s recent television appearances, she didn’t
explain why school is so hard on teen parents, or why only one-third of
adolescent mothers receive their diplomas.

The truth is, the nation with the highest adolescent
pregnancy and birth rates in the industrialized world has not figured out how
to meet the educational needs of pregnant and parenting teens.  In fact, we’re
going in the other direction – gutting the too-rare programs that have developed to
meet the unique needs of teen parents.

In June, a two-year-old residential charter school for teen
mothers in Washington, D.C., will shut its doors for good.  The City Council cited truancy, curricular
problems, and gaps in special education services in revoking MEI Futures
Academy’s charter, and ignored the school’s pleas to support
improvement efforts. Because it is a residential school, the 50 students at MEI
Futures Academy also must find a new place for themselves and their children to
live.

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Similar news came from Baltimore two weeks ago when the City
Council voted to merge a school for pregnant and parenting teen mothers with an
alternative program for boys. The reason? Cost cuts.

These moves follow New York City’s decision to close its
four "p-schools" in 2007 in favor of mainstreaming teen parents. A recent report from the New York
Civil Liberties Union evaluating the consequences of this decision found that
current services for teen parents are too few, too difficult to access, and too
poorly advertised – to an embarrassing degree. The drop out rates for teen
parents in New York schools are as high as 70 percent.

"We didn’t think it was a problem when (the four p-schools
closed) because they were really flawed – students weren’t necessarily going to
them voluntarily, and academically they were far from satisfactory," said Karyn
Brownson, the NYCLU’s teen health initiative director. "But when they closed,
the Department of Education wasn’t really prepared to replace and expand the
services (to pregnant and parenting teens) in traditional schools."

Insufficient data about parenting students makes it
difficult to evaluate existing programs. Beyond the abysmal retention of
parenting students, Brownson said that the NYCLU has heard anecdotally about
pregnant students being pressured out of school and into GED programs because
it was "obvious they’re not college-bound" and "they’re supposedly a bad
influence on other students."

Yet unequal access to education for parenting students is a
violation of Title IX, said Lara Kaufmann, senior counsel with the National
Women’s Law Center. "A student’s pregnancy, childbirth or termination of
pregnancy are all specifically included in Title IX’s protections against sex
discrimination in publicly funded schools," Kaufmann explained.

But while Title IX is famous for its role in ensuring access
to sports opportunities for girls, its protections for equal educational
opportunities for parenting students are less well known and frequently
violated.

"People are generally supportive of gender equity in sports,
but many don’t have the same sympathy for pregnant students," Kaufmann said.
"There’s still a stigma that pregnancy is their fault, that they should be
punished, and there’s a great myth that if you support pregnant students, it
will make other teenagers want to get pregnant too."

This myth "defies common sense–young people aren’t getting
pregnant because their school gives them access to childcare," said Kaufmann. "And
stigmatizing or discriminating against pregnant and parenting students is not
only illegal, but it is bad educational policy because it increases the risk
that those students will drop out."

While Title IX affirms the right of parenting students to
equal education, very few legal cases have been filed to enforce these rights.

This is because, Kaufmann said, "it’s really hard to bring a
lawsuit, particularly if you are a teenager. Lawsuits are not only financially
draining–and many of the girls we’re talking about are from low-income
families–but they also can be emotionally draining. ….  And it’s also important to note that many
pregnant and parenting teens are not even aware of their legal rights." 

Given that, Kaufmann added, it is "especially critical that
the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights aggressively and
proactively enforce the law in this area."

Not much of that is happening right now, however. There is
nothing typical when it comes to the services that schools offer to pregnant
and parenting teens because the vast majority of them do not offer any support
at all, said Kaufmann.

But there are some schools that prove the possibilities – and
the worth – of ensuring educational opportunities for young parents.

If we can escape the trap of taking anything we can get,
it’s worth looking at what, exactly, is working best in contemporary p-schools
so that we can develop a strong foundation for advocacy in New York, in
Baltimore, in Washington, D.C., and far beyond.

Catherine Ferguson
Academy

Detroit’s Catherine
Ferguson Academy
, a public high school for pregnant and parenting teen
girls, is perhaps the shining star of a school system that’s under emergency
financial management. Despite the school district’s struggles, CFA has won
national recognition over its 20 years of operation for its educational
innovations and high graduation rate.

CFA, which hosts up to 400 students (and 200 children) at a
time, boasts a 90% graduation rate and a 100% college acceptance rate for
students who earn diplomas. These numbers are superior even to many traditional
high schools in Detroit.

"At first, I was a little bit skeptical–an all-girls school?–it’s not going to work … " said Evelyn Locke, a CFA senior, on a
recent episode
of Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines. "But it’s really not that
bad."  Locke became pregnant in ninth
grade; this year she’s graduating and going on to study neo-natal nursing.

Ebony S. Griffin-Williams is a 1996 graduate of CFA who
credits the school for helping her get a high school degree and become an IT analyst. "Before
attending CFA my future was bleak. I was one of many of Detroit … lost children…
and I’m almost positive if I did not attend CFA I would have become a Teenage-Mother-High
School-Drop-Out," wrote Griffin-Williams in
an online review of the school
. "CFA became my family. One of the most
outstanding teaching methods taught to me by the loving staff of CFA was how
important it is to have self-pride."

So what’s helping these teen mothers to defy the statistics?

First of all, CFA takes a standard expectation for
p-schools – free on-site day care – a step further and offers free early education
classes, including kindergarten, to young children.  CFA‘s childcare staff
extends its hours for students taking extra evening classes at a nearby
community college.

The school offers a flexible schedule based on quarters over
nine months and four-day weeks; this leaves teen mothers sufficient time to
keep appointments and make up absences. Among the credits counted for
graduation are parenting education classes, which allow the mothers to
participate in activities alongside their children.

An on-site nursing and midwifery clinic offering pre- and
post-natal support minimizes absences. It also facilitates access to Women,
Infants, & Children (WiC), the federal program that offers supplemental
foods to low-income parents.

Speaking of food: CFA has an on-site organic farm featuring
vegetables, animals, and a student-built barn. The farm is maintained by
students, volunteers, and science teacher Paul Weertz. The project began as
Weertz’s creative response to pregnant students who couldn’t use chemicals in
science class; rather than dissecting animals, the students created a living
laboratory outdoors on vacant land that surrounded the school. Today the farm
serves as an opportunity for science and construction education, healthful food
served regularly in school, and activities for mothers and their children to
share.

One of the greatest challenges p-schools face is a lack of
public awareness about their existence; when school districts and the city
don’t consistently promote educational opportunities for pregnant and parenting
teens, students who need those services are often unaware they exist, making
drop-outs at traditional schools more likely. 
CFA takes the lack of promotion into its own hands. This spring, the
school hosted a citywide baby shower that drew nearly 100 young mothers and
their children to the party. There, Principal Asenath Andrews encouraged them
to enroll at Catherine Ferguson and make the possibilities of pursuing their
education – even higher education – a reality.

And she did it with the spirit of celebration and
possibility-not punishment. Andrews once told me about how other p-school
programs she’d encountered were housed in the same building as programs for
youth who were expelled or in trouble with the law. "You’d think they’d done
something illegal," Andrews said.

Finally, and perhaps most uniquely, is that Catherine
Ferguson Academy is able to offer students essential consistency. Rather than
being a temporary "bridge" program that expects teen parents to move on to a
traditional high school, students are eligible for enrollment at CFA from the
time they become pregnant until the time they graduate.  New students register in August of each year
on a first-come, first-serve basis; there is typically no waiting list.

Lund Family Center

The Lund Family Center in Vermont is not a school, but a
501c3 nonprofit and a multifaceted residential program for teen mothers. While
its student body is primarily drawn from Vermont, Lund occasionally enrolls
students from neighboring states. Lund’s services come at no cost to students; its
programming is funded by a diverse base, including the Vermont Department of
Education, the Department of Human Services, private donations, and school
districts that direct students to Lund.

Among its many services is an education program tailored to
the needs of each student. Lund’s
New Horizons Educational Program is approved by the Vermont’s Department of
Education and serves about 35 students a year on a rolling admission (some
in-residence, others as day students) through an ongoing school year. On staff
in the classroom are three certified teachers, a part-time tutor and a
classroom assistant that work directly with students.

Of the teens that Lund serves, about 50% had previously
dropped out of school and some are coming out of the corrections system. They
are between the ages of 12 and 27, thereby serving a wider range of students
than CFA is able to, though not nearly as many of them.

"(We) … can provide transitional services to assist a
student mother in returning to her high school, or continue to educate the mom
until she obtains a diploma from her high school," Kris Hoffman, the
educational services coordinator, explained. "We develop educational plans one
at a time for each student, and have achieved great success in this model,
although it is very labor intensive for our teachers."

Hoffman is clear that p-schools can’t skimp on resources if
they expect to be successful. From access to diaper-changing, breastfeeding and
milk-pumping, as well as frequent breaks and appropriate maternity leave,
Hoffman emphasized that adolescent student mothers need flexibility. "Our teachers can teach three
kinds of math in the same room while holding a baby," said Kitty Bartlett,
Lund’s communications and development coordinator.

While CFA offers students long-term stability in their
hometown, easing the obstacles towards graduation, Lund’s residential model
gives students a safe space away
from their native cities. "The common misconception is that the early pregnancy
is the only issue facing the student mother," Hoffman said.  But according to Bartlett, most student
mothers at Lund have a "history of poverty, a pretty significant history of
trauma, and often mental illness, medical, and substance abuse issues." Hoffman
contends that the gender-specific environment helps the center to work with
multiple issues simultaneously.

The program offers "maternity leave, post-secondary
educational counseling, referral to substance abuse and mental health
treatment, free lunch and snacks, and peer support," said Hoffman.

Lund makes a commitment to the children of its residents and
day-school students, offering childcare even after the teen parents transition
out of the program if it makes sense for the child. It also helps teens find
quality preschools for their children in the town they return to.

Finally, Lund tries hard to help young mothers be teenagers
as much as possible and appropriate. "We’ve seen that not supporting this
developmental phase [of being a teenager] is detrimental to the vulnerable
families with which we work," Hoffman said. "Adolescence is a time of growth
and change, and simply treating teen moms as adults does not help them to move
forward toward independence."

Some in the teen pregnancy prevention movement are
suspicious of programs for adolescent parents, believing that they serve as an
enticement to pregnancy.  Hoffman argues
that it’s important to overlay such programs with traditional environments,
particularly for very young mothers.

"I’ve noticed that really young mothers, aged 12-15, become
almost institutionalized when they remain in teen parent education programs for
their entire secondary school careers, and might continue to feel entitled to
public assistance and community involvement if they do not move on to a
different academic setting," she said.  "However,
if educational support is provided in a teen parent ed model for these youngest
mothers during the year that they are working on pregnancy and childbirth,
return to traditional high school can be very productive."

White River Online

For adolescent student parents without access to a p-school,
online education is an option to continue schooling. As an alternative program
of the White River School District in Buckley, Washington, White River Online
serves just over 60 full-time students between the ages of 12-21 with a standard
high school curriculum. It issues diplomas and hosts an annual graduation
ceremony.

While it is not a program specifically targeting pregnant
and parenting teens, its flexible schedule and accessibility make it a viable
choice for them. Danielle McIntosh, a White River Online teacher, estimates
that at least 10% of White River’s students are pregnant or parenting, though
the only way the school knows if its students are parents is if they tell them
about it.

If they do so, White River Online is willing to work with
them and their unique circumstances. "I would say we unofficially cut them some
slack that we probably wouldn’t extent to other students," said McIntosh. "For
example, a parenting student recently had a sick baby. Just a cold, but nap
times were disrupted so work times were also disrupted. We just extended her
deadlines to meet the situation."

Ensuring Fair and Equal
Access to Education

School districts and cities that ignore the needs of pregnant and parenting
students would do well to observe that proven, workable p-school models exist.
Therefore, doing anything less than making these models standard and accessible
is at best ill-informed and at worst cruel. Not to mention bordering on
illegal – teenagers have a legal right to public education, no matter what their
parenting status is.

That translates into a requirement for schools to adapt
their policies for unexcused absences, make-up work, doctor’s notes, home
instruction, transportation, individualized graduation plans, counseling, and
class scheduling for the needs of pregnant and parenting teens – without steering
them into inferior or academically lax programs.

"I don’t think there’s one right answer (for how to support
the educational success of parenting students), in terms of whether programs in
traditional schools or separate settings are better," said NWLC’s Lara Kaufmann, while emphasizing that significantly more research and data is needed in
this area.

"We know of promising examples following both models,"
Kaufmann added. "What this tells us is that there is more than one way to
provide the necessary supports, and that’s encouraging. As long as they comply
with the law, schools can be creative about how they help their parenting
students. The important thing is the substance, not the form."

Whether it’s a four-year high school, a multifaceted
residential facility or an accredited online program, the goal should be to
provide several viable options for students to meet their various needs. While
some students need the stability and peer-experience of attending a
comprehensive school like Catherine Ferguson Academy in their hometowns, others
might not find this to be the best option.

When it comes to p-schools, Hoffman has a request: "If you
have these programs in your areas, please
help teens and tweens to see them!"

The thing is, there should be no "if" — these programs need to
be in all of our areas. To paraphrase the NYCLU, not just one but two lives
depend on it.

Commentary Politics

On Immigration, Major Political Parties Can’t Seem to Agree on What’s ‘Un-American’

Tina Vasquez

As far as immigration is concerned, neither the Democrats nor Republicans are without their faults, though positions taken at the conventions were clearly more extreme in one case than the other.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Immigration has been one of the country’s most contentious political topics and, not surprisingly, is now a primary focus of this election. But no matter how you feel about the subject, this is a nation of immigrants in search of “el sueño Americano,” as Karla Ortiz reminded us on the first night of the Democratic National Convention (DNC). Ortiz, the 11-year-old daughter of two undocumented parents, appeared in a Hillary Clinton campaign ad earlier this year expressing fear that her parents would be deported. Standing next to her mother on the DNC stage, the young girl told the crowd that she is an American who wants to become a lawyer to help families like hers.

It was a powerful way to kick-start the week, suggesting to viewers Democrats were taking a radically different approach to immigration than the Republican National Convention (RNC). While the RNC made undocumented immigrants the scapegoats for a variety of social ills, from U.S. unemployment to terrorism, the DNC chose to highlight the contributions of immigrants: the U.S. citizen daughter of undocumented parents, the undocumented college graduate, the children of immigrants who went into politics. Yet, even the stories shared at the DNC were too tidy and palatable, focusing on “acceptable” immigrant narratives. There were no mixed-status families discussing their deported parents, for example.

As far as immigration is concerned, neither the Democrats nor Republicans are without their faults, though positions taken at the conventions were clearly more extreme in one case than the other. By the end of two weeks, viewers may not have known whether to blame immigrants for taking their jobs or to befriend their hardworking immigrant neighbors. For the undocumented immigrants watching the conventions, the message, however, was clear: Both parties have a lot of work to do when it comes to humanizing their communities.  

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“No Business Being in This Country”

For context, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his running mate Mike Pence are the decidedly anti-immigrant ticket. From the beginning, Trump’s campaign has been overrun by anti-immigrant rhetoric, from calling Mexicans “rapists” and “killers” to calling for a ban on Muslim immigration. And as of July 24, Trump’s proposed ban now includes people from countries “compromised by terrorism” who will not be allowed to enter the United States, including anyone from France.

So, it should come as no surprise that the first night of the RNC, which had the theme of “Make America Safe Again,” preyed on American fears of the “other.” In this case: undocumented immigrants who, as Julianne Hing wrote for the Nation, “aren’t just drug dealers and rapists anymorenow they’re murderers, too.”

Night one of the RNC featured not one but three speakers whose children were killed by undocumented immigrants. “They’re just three brave representatives of many thousands who have suffered so gravely,” Trump said at the convention. “Of all my travels in this country, nothing has affected me more, nothing even close I have to tell you, than the time I have spent with the mothers and fathers who have lost their children to violence spilling across our borders, which we can solve. We have to solve it.”

Billed as “immigration reform advocates,” grieving parents like Mary Ann Mendoza called her son’s killer, who had resided in the United States for 20 years before the drunk driving accident that ended her police officer son’s life, an “illegal immigrant” who “had no business being in this country.”

It seemed exploitative and felt all too common. Drunk driving deaths are tragically common and have nothing to do with immigration, but it is easier to demonize undocumented immigrants than it is to address the nation’s broken immigration system and the conditions that are separating people from their countries of originconditions to which the United States has contributed. Trump has spent months intentionally and disingenuously pushing narratives that undocumented immigrants are hurting and exploiting the United States, rather than attempting to get to the root of these issues. This was hammered home by Mendoza, who finished her speech saying that we have a system that cares more about “illegals” than Americans, and that a vote for Hillary “puts all of our children’s lives at risk.”

There was also Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a notorious racist whose department made a practice of racially profiling Latinos and was recently found to be in civil contempt of court for “repeatedly and knowingly” disobeying orders to cease policing tactics against Latinos, NPR reported.

Like Mendoza, Arpaio told the RNC crowd that the immigration system “puts the needs of other nations ahead of ours” and that “we are more concerned with the rights of ‘illegal aliens’ and criminals than we are with protecting our own country.” The sheriff asserted that he was at the RNC because he was distinctly qualified to discuss the “dangers of illegal immigration,” as someone who has lived on both sides of the border.

“We have terrorists coming in over our border, infiltrating our communities, and causing massive destruction and mayhem,” Arpaio said. “We have criminals penetrating our weak border security systems and committing serious crimes.”

Broadly, the takeaway from the RNC and the GOP nominee himself is that undocumented immigrants are terrorists who are taking American jobs and lives. “Trump leaned on a tragic story of a young woman’s murder to prop up a generalized depiction of immigrants as menacing, homicidal animals ‘roaming freely to threaten peaceful citizens,’” Hing wrote for the Nation.

When accepting the nomination, Trump highlighted the story of Sarah Root of Nebraska, a 21-year-old who was killed in a drunk-driving accident by a 19-year-old undocumented immigrant.

“To this administration, [the Root family’s] amazing daughter was just one more American life that wasn’t worth protecting,” Trump said. “One more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders.”

It should be noted that the information related to immigration that Trump provided in his RNC speech, which included the assertion that the federal government enables crime by not deporting more undocumented immigrants (despite deporting more undocumented immigrants than ever before in recent years), came from groups founded by John Tanton, a well-known nativist whom the Southern Poverty Law center referred to as “the racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement.”

“The Border Crossed Us”

From the get-go, it seemed the DNC set out to counter the dangerous, anti-immigrant rhetoric pushed at the RNC. Over and over again, Democrats like Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-CA) hit back hard against Trump, citing him by name and quoting him directly.

“Donald Trump believes that Mexican immigrants are murderers and rapists. But what about my parents, Donald?” Sánchez asked the crowd, standing next to her sister, Rep. Loretta Sánchez (D-CA). “They are the only parents in our nation’s 265-year history to send not one but two daughters to the United States Congress!”

Each speech from a Latino touched on immigration, glossing over the fact that immigration is not just a Latino issue. While the sentiments were positiveillustrating a community that is thriving, and providing a much-needed break from the RNC’s anti-immigrant rhetoricat the core of every speech were messages of assimilation and respectability politics.

Even in gutsier speeches from people like actress Eva Longoria, there was the need to assert that her family is American and that her father is a veteran. The actress said, “My family never crossed a border. The border crossed us.”

Whether intentional or not, the DNC divided immigrants into those who are acceptable, respectable, and worthy of citizenship, and those—invisible at the convention—who are not. “Border crossers” who do not identify as American, who do not learn English, who do not aspire to go to college or become an entrepreneur because basic survival is overwhelming enough, what about them? Do they deserve to be in detention? Do their families deserve to be ripped apart by deportation?

At the convention, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), a champion of immigration reform, said something seemingly innocuous that snapped into focus the problem with the Democrats’ immigration narrative.

“In her heart, Hillary Clinton’s dream for America is one where immigrants are allowed to come out of the shadows, get right with the law, pay their taxes, and not feel fear that their families are going to be ripped apart,” Gutiérrez said.

The Democratic Party is participating in an all-too-convenient erasure of the progress undocumented people have made through sheer force of will. Immigration has become a leading topic not because there are more people crossing the border (there aren’t) or because nativist Donald Trump decided to run for president, but because a segment of the population has been denied basic rights and has been fighting tooth and nail to save themselves, their families, and their communities.

Immigrants have been coming out of the shadows and as a result, are largely responsible for the few forms of relief undocumented communities now have, like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allows certain undocumented immigrants who meet specific qualifications to receive a renewable two-year work permit and exemption from deportation. And “getting right with the law” is a joke at this point. The problem isn’t that immigrants are failing to adhere to immigration laws; the problem is immigration laws that are notoriously complicated and convoluted, and the system, which is so backlogged with cases that a judge sometimes has just seven minutes to determine an immigrant’s fate.

Becoming a U.S. citizen is also really expensive. There is a cap on how many people can immigrate from any given country in a year, and as Janell Ross explained at the Washington Post:

There are some countries, including Mexico, from where a worker with no special skills or a relative in the United States can apply and wait 23 years, according to the U.S. government’s own data. That’s right: There are people receiving visas right now in Mexico to immigrate to the United States who applied in 1993.

But getting back to Gutierrez’s quote: Undocumented immigrants do pay taxes, though their ability to contribute to our economy should not be the one point on which Democrats hang their hats in order to attract voters. And actually, undocumented people pay a lot of taxes—some $11.6 billion in state and local taxes last year, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy—while rarely benefiting from a majority of federal assistance programs since the administration of President Bill Clinton ended “welfare as we know it” in 1996.

If Democrats were being honest at their convention, we would have heard about their failure to end family detention, and they would have addressed that they too have a history of criminalizing undocumented immigrants.

The 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, enacted under former President Clinton, have had the combined effect of dramatically increasing the number of immigrants in detention and expanding mandatory or indefinite detention of noncitizens ordered to be removed to countries that will not accept them, as the American Civil Liberties Union notes on its site. Clinton also passed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which economically devastated Mexican farmers, leading to their mass migration to the United States in search of work.

In 1990, then-Sen. Joe Biden introduced the Violence Against Women Act, which passed in 1994 and specifically excluded undocumented women for the first 19 of the law’s 22 years, and even now is only helpful if the victim of intimate partner abuse is a child, parent, or current/former spouse of a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident.

In addition, President Obama is called by immigrant rights advocates “deporter in chief,” having put into place a “deportation machine” that has sent more than two million migrants back to their country of origin, more than any president in history. New arrivals to the United States, such as the Central American asylum seekers coming to our border escaping gender-based violence, are treated with the same level of prioritization for removal as threats to our national security. The country’s approach to this humanitarian crisis has been raiding homes in the middle of the night and placing migrants in detention centers, which despite being rife with allegations of human rights abuses, are making private prison corporations millions in revenue.

How Are We Defining “Un-American”?

When writing about the Democratic Party, community organizer Rosa Clemente, the 2008 Green Party vice president candidate, said that she is afraid of Trump, “but not enough to be distracted from what we must do, which is to break the two-party system for good.”

This is an election like we’ve never seen before, and it would be disingenuous to imply that the party advocating for the demise of the undocumented population is on equal footing with the party advocating for the rights of certain immigrants whose narratives it finds acceptable. But this is a country where Republicans loudly—and with no consequence—espouse racist, xenophobic, and nativist beliefs while Democrats publicly voice support of migrants while quietly standing by policies that criminalize undocumented communities and lead to record numbers of deportations.

During two weeks of conventions, both sides declared theirs was the party that encapsulated what America was supposed to be, adhering to morals and values handed down from our forefathers. But ours is a country comprised of stolen land and built by slave labor where today, undocumented immigrants, the population most affected by unjust immigration laws and violent anti-immigrant rhetoric, don’t have the right to vote. It is becoming increasingly hard to tell if that is indeed “un-American” or deeply American.

News Law and Policy

No Need to Block Bathroom Access for Transgender Student, Attorneys Tell Supreme Court

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A transgender student in Virginia sued the local school board, arguing that its policy of mandating that students use bathrooms consistent with their “biological sex” rather than their gender identity was unconstitutional.

Attorneys representing transgender student Gavin Grimm told the U.S. Supreme Court this week that there was no reason to block a lower court order guaranteeing Grimm access to school restrooms that align with his gender identity while Grimm’s lawsuit against the Gloucester County School Board proceeds.

Grimm in 2015 sued the school board, arguing that its policy of mandating that students use bathrooms consistent with their “biological sex” rather than their gender identity—thus separating transgender students from their peers—was unconstitutional. Attorneys representing Grimm argued that the policy violates the 14th Amendment and Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972, a federal law prohibiting sex-based discrimination at schools that receive federal funding.

A lower district court ruled the school board’s policy did not violate Grimm’s rights. But the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, reversing that decision and sending the case back to the lower court, which then blocked the school district from enforcing its policy while Grimm’s case proceeds.

In response, the school board notified the Fourth Circuit of its intent to appeal that decision to the Supreme Court and requested the appellate court stay its order granting Grimm access to bathrooms aligned with his gender identity—a decision the Fourth Circuit granted in June.

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The school board then asked the Roberts Court to issue an emergency stay of the lower court decision blocking its bathroom policy while the Court considers taking Grimm’s case.

Grimm’s attorneys argue there is no basis for the Roberts Court to grant the emergency stay requested by the school board. The board has “utterly failed to demonstrate that it will suffer irreparable harm” if Grimm is allowed to use the boys’ restroom at Gloucester High School while the Roberts Court considers stepping into the case at all, according to Grimm’s attorneys.

Attorneys for the school board filed their request with Chief Justice John Roberts, who handles petitions from the Fourth Circuit. Roberts can rule on the school board’s request to block the lower court decision, or he can refer the request to the entire Court to consider.

It is not known when Roberts or the Court will make that choice.

The Gloucester County School Board has argued that the Obama administration overstepped its authority in protecting transgender student rights. Attorneys for the school board said that overreach began in 2012, when an administration agency issued an opinion that said refusing transgender students access to the bathrooms consistent with their gender identity violated Title IX.

The administration expanded that opinion in October 2015 and filed a friend of the court brief on Grimm’s behalf with the Fourth Circuit, arguing it was the administration’s position that the school board’s policy violated federal law.

The administration again expanded that opinion in May this year into a directive stating that should publicly funded schools deny transgender students access to facilities that conform to students’ gender identity, they would be in violation of federal law, subject to lawsuits, and risking their federal funding.

The Fourth Circuit relied heavily on these actions in initially siding with Grimm earlier this year.