The rights of pregnant and parenting students in Illinois are often overlooked, and more supports need to be in place to ensure the youth reach their full academic potential, school officials and adolescent health advocates said at a town hall meeting on the topic in Chicago.
The meeting, hosted by the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health's (ICAH) School Network, follows recently-released guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) on strategies meant to support the academic success of pregnant and parenting students under Title IX. The department's optional recommendations issued in June were prepared for secondary school administrators, teachers, counselors, parents and students.
ICAH's Executive Director Yamani Hernandez said a "blanket of shame" still shrouds many young people who are pregnant or parenting and, "That’s really a barrier to their success."
"Once a young person has already decided to parent, and is already parenting, what the community needs to do is come and mobilize around them and figure out how to help them succeed," she said. "Not beat them up for decisions that they have made."
Overall, those at the discussion said it's often difficult for students and others to find information in their school district about what their options and rights are if they are expecting or parenting. Others complained that some school districts are not approving home-bound instruction for pregnant students by the time the teens give birth.
"It's disturbing," Hernandez said.
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities in public and private schools that receive federal funding. Under Title IX, discrimination or harassment against pregnant students is also prohibited. It is illegal, for example, to exclude a pregnant student from participating in educational programs. Schools also are required to excuse absences due to pregnancy or childbirth if the student's doctor says it is medically necessary, among other protections.
But the protections are different once the students become parents.
"Your protection is limited to you [not being] treated differently than any other parent because of your sex," said Aleeza Strubel with OCR. "That doesn't mean that parenting students get special protection under Title IX."
Schools have to provide certain accommodations to enable a pregnant student to remain in school, but this is not mandated for parenting students, Strubel added.
The recent recommendations from OCR, which are not legally binding, include best practices for supporting pregnant and parenting students in schools. Some of those strategies include excusing absences for parenting students who need to take care of their sick children or take them to the doctor, designating a private room for breastfeeding during the school day and setting up support groups and other programs to help parenting students say in school, to name of a few.
Stubel added that those who want to see better protections for pregnant and parenting students should be pushing for policy changes at various levels, including at individual schools, school districts and the Illinois State Board of Education.
"You can go to your local school district and say, 'The federal government says you should be helping our girls after they've had their children and our young men who are fathers and who want to parent their children,'" Strubel told about 50 people at the meeting, held at Access Living. "That's the other half of the equation. We want to ... make it possible for (boys) to step up and co-parent and take responsibility."
Jonathan Johnson, 21, who has a four-year-old son, said there were no programs or services that he knew of that catered to young fathers when he was in school.
"There is a lot of us that’s really making a difference, [but] there’s not a lot of tools for us to actually do what we need to do," Johnson said. "Even in schools, there are some programs that help women or mothers, but there is nothing that I've seen so far that helps a father."
Johnson did connect with a program called the Dovetail Project, an initiative that teaches parenting and life skills to young fathers aged 17 to 24. He said the program gave him a "sense of moral standards," adding that more schools should have similar mentoring programs for teens.
Those at the discussion noted that school policies surrounding absences are one of the key factors driving the dropout problem among pregnant and parenting students.
Pedro Albizu Campos High School in Humboldt Park is at least one Chicago educational institution focused on getting expectant and parenting students back in school. The high school has a Lolita Lebrón Family Learning Center (FLC) program that provides parenting students with supportive policies and programming to attain a high school diploma. The program provides childcare services to the mothers and offers curriculum involving the "social history of parenting." The school also excuses absences for pregnancy-related and child doctor appointments, for example.
Danette Sokacich, the school's assistant principal and FLC's director, said many schools are in need of extra supports when it comes to working with expectant and parenting teens, and community partnerships can be a big help.
"As a child of a teen parent, I know my mother did not have these opportunities afforded to her in the 70s, and so it really is important that these young women have structures in place to support them," she said.
At the state level, there is pending legislation in the Senate that looks to remove barriers to school attendance for parents and those who are expecting, as well as students who are the victims of domestic or sexual violence. The legislation, HB 2213, which passed through the House in March, specifically addresses the issue of excused absences related to pregnancy and parenting, among other measures meant to ensure success in school.
ICAH's School Network members say they plan to hold more events with stakeholders from across the state around the topic of pregnant and parenting students.
"Whether you think that young people should be parenting or pregnant or not, either way it goes, there are young people that are pregnant and parenting, and it's the law to support them in achieving their academic success," Hernandez added.