After enrolling at a new public high school during my senior year, I quickly realized how difficult it would be to succeed as a pregnant 17-year-old student. I had assumed that my peers would be the ones isolating me or making me feel like an outsider, so I was shocked when my teachers became my bullies. I did not want to stay in school when the people who were meant to educate and guide me were often the same ones judging and shaming me. Thanks to the work of a single dedicated social worker for teen parents in my school and her ability to advocate for my Title IX rights, I was able to graduate with my class. But not everyone will have such resources. And with that in mind, I feel it is vital to remind expectant and parenting students of their federal right to an education.
A 2006 report by the Gates Foundation found that 26 percent of youth who drop out of school in the United States said that becoming a parent was a major factor in their decision. However, many pregnant and parenting teens also reported in that same Gates report that they felt more motivated to stay in school after becoming pregnant or parents, and would have stayed if their schools provided equitable access to the necessary support. For some students, that support looks like scheduling accommodations or access to in-home tutoring. For others, support simply looks like being able to learn in a discrimination- and harassment-free environment.
Such an environment certainly wasn’t accessible for me. Looking back at my first week of school, I remember a moment where I looked at my senior year schedule to see that I was pulled out of all my honors classes. When I asked my guidance counselor why, she told me that girls like me—in other words, pregnant girls—couldn’t handle the workload. When I walked into classrooms, teachers would pull their glasses to the tips of their noses and glare at me while I tried to maneuver my protruding belly behind a small desk. During my last trimester, my legs were swollen and my belly was heavy, so it would often take me more than the allotted four minutes to go from a first-floor classroom to my next class on the fourth floor, on the other side of the building. One teacher made it a point to give me detention every time I was late and to remind me, in front of my class, that my pregnancy was a choice.
A few weeks before my due date and maternity leave, I made the second trip of the year to my guidance counselor’s office to ask for help with picking and applying for colleges. Barely making eye contact, she regurgitated the common stereotype: “Girls who get pregnant in high school struggle to finish high school and rarely go to college.” She pointed me to a stack of brochures from local community colleges and went back to typing on her computer. Given that the odds were apparently stacked against me, I began to wonder if it was worth trying anymore or if I should just drop out and not deal with the stress. Every day, I would ask myself whether I would bother coming back the next day.
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These factors exacerbated the effects of the trauma I had undergone earlier in life. Before my pregnancy, I had experienced abuse, witnessed violence, and coped with depression. School had always been my escape from the real world and a place where I could focus on my own growth. But my pregnancy changed that: It granted my instructors the opportunity to project their own judgment and unconscious biases upon me.
And I wasn’t unique. Many young parents across the country have experienced adversities and are in need of empathetic support systems in their educational experiences. A recent report by the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy revealed that 30 percent of expectant and parenting teens experienced homelessness over the course of the one-year survey; 46 percent of the teen parent population had been physically or emotionally abused or neglected by their caregivers; and 18 percent of teen parents had experienced sexual abuse. Yet we know that with empathy and equitable access to resources, teen parents are capable of overcoming these obstacles and succeeding in a variety of spheres, including academically.
One major way teens can help empower themselves is by asserting their federal rights. Many young parents may not know this, but many of the experiences and educational hardships they are facing are actually illegal. The National Women’s Law Center has compiled a clear list of expectant and parenting students’ rights as outlined in the federal law Title IX, which forbids gender discrimination in schools. Within Title IX, expectant and parenting students have the right to excused absences for pregnancy-related issues, reasonable time to make up work missed from excused absences, and maternity leave. If their schools provide temporarily disabled students with at-home tutoring, expectant and parenting students are also legally entitled to the same.
Students cannot be kicked out of school for being pregnant or parenting and do not need to bring in medical notes to continue their education or continue participating in extracurricular activities. Additionally, parenting students have the right to privacy, and no school official can share their pregnancy information with anyone without full consent. And regardless of parenting status, students have the right to continue their learning without being shamed. As Title IX clarifies, harassment because of pregnancy is a form of sex discrimination and a violation of the federal law.
With this in mind, young parents can and should demand transparency about their Title IX rights in school—and, in turn, to ask for a clear policy in their district that enforces those rights. In my case, a policy clarifying how teachers were allowed to engage with students and mandating training for all people working with young parents could have made my high school experience much more bearable. My social worker knew the complex issues around teen pregnancy and didn’t reduce my identity and life to my pregnancy; she was also well-informed on how to challenge or report instances of Title IX violations. But these weren’t guaranteed for other parenting students without a social worker. So ensuring a policy that includes language on why breastfeeding is a valid reason to be in the nurse’s office twice a day, or one that explicitly reinforced a young father’s involvement by excusing absences during the mother or baby’s medical appointments, maternity leave, or when babies are sick, could have helped students in the future.
Additionally, my educators, nurses, and guidance counselors would have benefited from learning how to be genuine support systems for young parents. Adults can sometimes unconsciously project judgment onto young parents or make stigmatizing comments that reduce them to statistics. Those little moments can have a deep and serious impact on a young person’s self-determination. Recently, a group of seven young moms formed a campaign, #NoTeenShame, to help push new frameworks that elevate strength-based language. Administrators should take cues from efforts like these, which amplify the voices of lived experiences.
Implementing policies that encompass these practices would ensure that the needs of young people are being met, allowing them to move toward their own dreams and goals. And district officials themselves have cause to cooperate; Title IX is mandatory, and violating these rights can cause a school to lose its federal funding.
We see a stark number of young people leaving school despite being motivated to stay because of the school’s lack of sensitivity. For young parents across the country, there are a few things we can do to protect our peers and ourselves:
- Find your district’s Title IX coordinator and share that person’s contact information with your peers and school support system.
- Urge your school administrators to create or update a policy for expectant and parenting students with the Title IX toolkit from the National Women’s Law Center.
- Know your rights and share them widely by discussing them on social media, posting flyers on your schools’ community boards, and asking your school to post them in highly visible locations.
As a former teen mom, I know the journey to implementing a district-wide policy seems overwhelming and that challenging an entire school system feels impossible. But young parents fighting for—and making—change could benefit the educational system.