Commentary Sexual Health

The Lesson of Delhi Charter School: It’s Time to Truly Support Pregnant and Parenting Teens

Martha Kempner

This week all eyes turned to the Delhi Charter School, which rescinded a policy that grossly discriminated against female students. This situation underscores how ineffective we are at supporting pregnant and parenting teens.

This week all eyes turned to a charter school in Louisiana and its policy regarding pregnant teens. The Delhi Charter School—a K-12 school in a rural part of the state—had a policy on the books since 2006 that said that any student suspected of being pregnant was required to take a pregnancy test using a doctor of the school’s choosing and that if she were found to be pregnant she would not be allowed to return to class. Instead, she would be offered a course of home study. If she did not find that acceptable, she would be “counseled to seek other educational opportunities.” The policy went on to say that any student suspected of being pregnant who refused to take a pregnancy test would be treated as pregnant and placed on home study as well. 

The Louisiana ACLU became aware of this policy and informed the school that it violated Title IX of the federal education act which requires equal opportunities for both sexes. The school quickly replied saying that it was sending its policy out for review by a law firm. It seems that the school’s attorneys agreed with the ACLU because the next day the school announced that it would be changing its pregnancy policy.  

It’s great that this school reversed the policy so quickly once administrators were alerted to it, but it remains disturbing to me that the policy was on the books for six years without anyone realizing that it was blatantly illegal or even problematic. This suggests that we have some educating of educators to do not just about the law but about the messages they are sending (even if inadvertent) to teens and about the way pregnant and parenting teens should be treated.   

The Messages Such Policies Send

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Most schools do not have a policy as extreme as this one—it seems no one has heard of a policy that requires pregnancy testing, for example—nonetheless the messages about sex, gender, and pregnancy that were sent by the Delhi Charter School through this now rescinded policy are sent to teen girls every day.

Pregnant Girls are Shameful

As this controversy played out many people noted that such a policy seemed to take us back to the fifties when unmarried pregnant girl were sent off to homes for unwed mothers while friends and neighbors were told they were “spending a few months with relatives.” It was clear then that their condition was a source of shame for their families and that it was important to hide it from the neighbors. Louise Melling, Deputy Legal Director at the ACLU, said this policy reminded her of those days when we tried to force pregnant women back into the house:  

“It feels very much reminiscent of earlier eras—you can’t say to a girl that she can’t be in school because she’s pregnant any more than you can say to a woman if she’s pregnant that she can’t be in the workforce.”

We may not send pregnant girls away anymore but we certainly still suggest they should feel ashamed of their condition. Consuela Greene, director of training and partnership at the Massachusetts Alliance of Teen Pregnancy, says that even schools that don’t have strict policies often suggest that pregnant girls should leave school. Thinking back to her own experience as a teen mother, Greene said of her high school: 

“The minute they found out that someone was pregnant, they would try to encourage you to go to the pregnant and parenting school.  It was done under the auspices of being best for you and the baby but it still suggested that you shouldn’t be there.”

I asked Greene what she thought the motives were behind the suggestion that pregnant teens should leave school. She acknowledged that some educators probably felt that pregnant teens really would be better served elsewhere but that consciously or not, many administrators worry about how pregnant teens look to others. Schools, especially schools like Delhi Charter which clearly prides itself on academic excellence, have an image to uphold and they fear that pregnant teens taint their reputation. As Greene explains: 

“The presence of pregnant girls in the building changes the image of the school —people think, if you’ve made that kind of decision you probably aren’t the kind of person we want walking through the halls.”

Schools also seem to fear that having a pregnant teen in class will send the message to their friends and classmates that this is acceptable which will in turn lead to more pregnant teens. But pregnancy is not contagious and suggesting they should or must leave school sends an even more damaging message. Greene notes:

“The impact that kind of shaming and ostracizing policy is that you don’t belong here.  Not only do you not belong here, you’re not worthy.”

Jamie H. Bardwell, director of program for the Women’s Fund of Mississippi says that in her experience these kind of policies often represent a misguided attempt by administrators to prevent teen sexual behavior. She says this type of tough love not only doesn’t work but can actually backfire:

“We’ve heard versions of this elsewhere like taking away extracurricular activities, such as team sports, from boys who are suspected or known to be having sex.  It doesn’t work as a deterrent and the irony is that the kids are just going to be bored at home in the afternoon and maybe even have more sex.”

Moreover, like any other deterrent—whether it’s being grounded by your parents or sent to prison by the courts—when it fails to prevent the behavior, it gets handed down as a punishment. The question is: what are girls really being punished for; getting pregnant or having sex?

Sex is Bad and Girls Who Have Sex Are Bad

Though on the face the school is reacting to a young woman’s condition, it’s hard not to feel that what they are really upset about is the fact that she had sex in the first place.  Getting pregnant is basically how she got caught. Of course, in the case of the extreme policy that the Delhi Charter School’s had for the last few years, you could get “caught” by suspicion alone.  According to the policy:

“If a teacher or administrator suspects a student is pregnant, a parent-teacher conference will be held.  The school reserves the right to require any female student to take a pregnancy test to determine if the suspected student is in fact pregnant.”

The suspected student really makes her sound like a criminal, doesn’t it?

My first question when I read this was what exactly constitutes the suspicion of pregnancy: a teacher notices that a girl’s breasts have grown larger, a coach notes that her cheerleading uniform no longer fits, an administrator sees her eating saltines in the hallway? I suppose any of these scenarios are possible but my guess is that if this part of the policy was ever implemented it was not because of any of these physical change but because of the school’s rumor mill.

Young people like to talk about who is having sex with whom and word of a pregnancy or a pregnancy scare inevitably spreads like wildfire in high school. Let’s face it, even in this day and age when the majority of students have had sex by the time they graduate high school, some students (or should I say some girls) still get labeled “sluts” by their peers.  This is always unfair not to mention usually inaccurate.  Bardwell says that students are constantly overestimating how much sex their peers are having.  She notes:

“The rumor mill is not an accurate way of learning about how teens think and feel about their sexual health or what they’re doing.  This is one of the most inaccurate ways of determining whether someone is pregnant.”

Nonetheless, under this policy it seems that based on nothing more than a rumor, a girl could have found herself sitting in the principal’s office across from her parents having to defend her behavior and then in a doctor’s office having to prove she’s not pregnant or admit she is. 

Teens are clearly not the only ones who label young women based on whether or not they’ve had sex or if they’ve had “too much” sex to be socially acceptable. One of my issues with abstinence-only-until-marriage programs is the way in which most set up a dichotomy between sexually-active students (who are described as having low moral standards, lacking in character, and facing a terrible future) and those who remained abstinent (who are clearly moral, upstanding citizens, destined to succeed in life). 

Sexual behavior is a normal part of teen years—63 percent of all teens have had vaginal intercourse by their senior year in high school.  It is completely inappropriate for a school to tell these students (even if they suspect one of them is pregnant) that they are in any way less worthy of our love, trust, or respect than their peers who have not had sex. 

Moreover, most of us (even those who hope they stay abstinent as teenager) want our young people to grow up to be sexually healthy and to view sex as a natural and pleasurable part of life. The message that this policy sends—that being suspected of having had sex is something that gets you called to the principal’s office, that sex is bad—runs counter to our hopes for our young people’s future. 

Different Standards Apply to Girls than Boys

The part of the policy that made it not just disturbing but illegal was its one-sided nature. It treats a male and a female engaging in the same behavior differently and forces the female to suffer public humiliation and disruption to her education. There were no consequences for the “suspected student’s” male partner. Here we go again, reinforcing the society double standard that says that boys who have sex are studs but the girls they do it with are whores. Bardwell says:

“It’s misogynistic at best: the fact that we’re going to judge girls based on their appearance and then deem what medical tests are necessary.”

Young people need to understand that partners of both sexes have equal rights when it comes to deciding on sexual behavior, should take equal responsibility in protecting themselves and their partners from STDs and unintended pregnancy, and will both need to face any consequences that result.

Your Reproductive Health Doesn’t Belong You

Oddly, I think I was most disturbed by the part of the policy which said that the school could not only force a suspected student to get a pregnancy test but could refer her to the doctor of its choice for that test. Though pregnancy tests are not invasive—you just pee on a stick—this trip to a strange doctor may very well be the first time a young women receives any reproductive health care. Being forced to do so with someone she does not know and has not chosen—not to mention someone who is going to share her test results with school officials—does not seem like the best introduction to such care.

When I heard this story, I was reminded of a case in 2003 that the New York Civil Liberties Union took on in which a number of female students at a New York City high school were sent to a clinic for STD testing after school officials learned that they had played hooky and attended a party at which some teens reportedly engaged in sexual behavior.  Though students of both sexes participated in the party, only the girls were sent for testing. The girls were not permitted to see their own doctors and were told they could not return to class until they produced a doctor’s note that said they did not have STDs and were not pregnant. The physician who saw a number of these girls expressed outrage at this: 

“When you force teens to undergo intrusive medical procedures as punishment, you alienate them from the health care system and health providers they need to be able to rely on and trust in order to protect their well-being.”  

The same could certainly be said of sending young women for mandatory pregnancy testing and sharing those results with the school. It sends the message that taking care of your reproductive health is nothing something you do for yourself and that the information you share with your physician is not private. (In fact, in its letter to the school the ACLU also argued that students have a right to informational privacy.) 

How We Should Treat Pregnant and Parenting Students

Though few schools have policies as blatantly illegal as the charter school in Delhi, both Bardwell and Greene say that they frequently interact with administrators who are not fully versed on what they are required to provide for pregnant students under the law let alone on best practices in helping these young women. Bardwell said that Title IX is often thought of as being just about sports and many educators don’t even realize that it applies to this area as well. Greene adds that administrators may be in violation of the law in little ways without even knowing it; she pointed to cases where pregnant students were denied the key to the elevator or a desk and chair that were not attached even though such accommodations are readily made for students who, say, break a leg.   

Greene says schools need to be reminded of their responsibilities toward pregnant and parenting teens and should have policies in place to deal with their needs so that administrators know, for example, when home tutoring kicks in, what documentation a young women needs to receive such tutoring, or how a young father can apply for paternity leave so he can be home without penalty for the first couple of weeks after the birth. Toward that end her organization has created a document that includes a model policy for dealing with both expectant and parenting students. The model policy starts with a vision statement that says:

Expectant and parenting students, regardless of their marital status, have the same right as any other student to attend any district school or program and to do so in an environment free of discrimination or harassment. The district shall make reasonable adjustments to facilitate the equal access and full participation of expectant and parenting students. The district will provide expectant and parenting students with the educational options, resource information, and access to support and advocacy services that they need to achieve educational success.

It goes on to explain Title IX and suggest that schools appoint a staff person as a liaison to help expectant students navigate the system. The policy also covers reasonable accommodations (such as providing flexible schedules, elevator keys, and a place, other than a restroom, for new mothers to pump breast milk); confirms the right to confidentiality for both teen mothers and fathers; and sets standardized procedures for short- and long-term absences.  Such policies, according to Bardwell, can be really powerful in helping keep young women in school which has to be the ultimate goal.  She point out that:

“Teens who become pregnant are more motivated to stay in school because they have a child whose future counts as well but they lack the support needed to make that happen.”

She also notes that communities with policies that don’t help teens continue their education after they have a child are shooting themselves in the foot because these teens are then less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to end up on public assistance. 

Upon announcing the change in policy, the president of the school’s board noted that the policy had only been used a handful of times over these years and that all of these students had subsequently returned to school. It would be interesting to hear from these students on what it felt like to be ostracized from classes at a school they may well have attended since they were five-years-old and why they chose to return.  

In the meantime, it is great news that once under scrutiny, administrators at the Delhi Charter School chose to redo its discriminatory pregnancy policy and it’s good to know that most schools don’t have such extreme policies.  But it is clear that we still send damaging messages to young women when it comes to sex and pregnancy and that our schools and communities have a lot of work to do both in preventing teen pregnancy and in supporting teens who become pregnant and those who are parenting.  Access to the resources they need to continue their educational is vital not just to them but to their children as well.   

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