General Articles

Pregnant Teens Still Face Illegal Sex Discrimination in Schools

June 23, 2012 marked the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark legislation barring any educational institution receiving federal funds to discriminate based on sex.[1] While many lawmakers, parents, and students are unaware that discrimination due to a student’s current or past pregnancy is sex discrimination and illegal, a recent reportreleased by The National Women’s Law Center details that discrimination is still faced by pregnant or parenting teens in schools today.  According to the study, which also outlines the rights to which each student is entitled under Title IX, outlines how teen mothers and pregnant teens risk being kicked out of school, are pressured to enroll in subpar alternative programs, barred from certain activities, and penalized for pregnancy-related absences.[2]
Students who are mothers or are pregnant are, consequently, much more likely to drop out of high school and not pursue higher education. The report notes that 50 percent of teens who become pregnant will not receive their high school diploma by age 22. By comparison, only 11 percent of students who are not teen parents will be unsuccessful in attaining their diploma by age 22.[3] However, the higher dropout rate is not an inevitable outcome. The School Age Families Education program in California (Cal-SAFE), for example, is a school-based program that provides academic and support services to teen parents and their children and encourages them to stay in school. In 2009, 73 percent of students who participated in the program successfully completed high school.[4]
Unfortunately, most states do not have programs like Cal-SAFE in place, and in fact, directly discourage pregnant and teen parents from finishing high school. Earlier in 2012, a school in New Mexico kicked out a fifteen-year-old student because she was pregnant and then publicly humiliated her return to school by forcing her to announce her pregnancy at a school assembly.[5] The report also found that many schools are guilty of stifling these students’ educational aspirations. In 1998, a pregnant student with a 3.9 GPA was denied admission to her high school’s National Honor Society because she did not satisfy the “good character” requirement.[6]
The reports’ authors note that shunning pregnant teens and making an example of them, as in the cases above, is counterproductive. The concern that students who view their pregnant peers juggling parental responsibility and class work will think that pregnancy is easy and want to become pregnant themselves is unfounded, the report states. The report also adds that to effectively discourage teen pregnancy, students should be provided comprehensive sex education.[7]
An environment of discouragement is not the only challenge that teens parents face. While schools are required to excuse pregnancy-related absences, many fail to do so and further penalize students by not allowing them to make up the work they missed. Viewed as lost causes, many schools will shuffle teen parents into alternative curricula that essentially operate as “dropout factories with no meaningful educational opportunities.”[8] For example, in 2007, an article in the New York Times reported that girls at a pregnancy high school in Harlem, New York cut shapes and sewed a quilt as a geometry assignment.[9]
The report ranked states according to how well their laws and policies properly address and support pregnant and parenting teens. California, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida and Oregon were commended for taking important strides forward to better accommodate and encourage pregnant and parenting students. Out of 15 possible points, 17 states received two-and-a-half points or less.
Idaho, which ranked last, earned only half a point and was highlighted for its especially dismal treatment of pregnant teens. Noted was a website operated by Idaho,, which posed the following theoretical question on its FAQ page: “My girlfriend is pregnant, and we can’t afford to have a baby. What do we do?” In response, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare states, “well, you should have thought of that before now!”[10] The website also suggests that student parents prepare for the GED through Idaho Public Television if they cannot afford the child care that would enable them to remain in school.[11]
The report concludes with a list of policy recommendations to remove these barriers to educational success. The Department of Education should remind schools of their legal obligations to protect the rights of pregnant and parenting teens and conduct proactive compliance reviews to ensure that schools are not violating Title IX. Policymakers at the state level need to create a statewide definition of excused absences and clarify that pregnancy-related absences must be excused. Finally, each school should designate a Title IX coordinator to act as a liaison between pregnant and parenting students to streamline and ease access to services. Information regarding Title IX and access to Title IX coordinator contact information should be prominently displayed on school grounds.[12]
Students who are pregnant or parenting should not be discouraged in any way from reaching their educational potential, especially when these students often already feel disengaged from their education. Schools have the unique opportunity to use parenthood and pregnancy as a positive motivation to reconnect these students to their education and encourage their full potential.[13] Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center, states, “it’s past time for leaders to make serious efforts to help, rather than hinder, these vulnerable students.” [14]

[1]“Title IX, Education Amendments of 1972,” United States Department of Labor, accessed 25 June 2012,

[2]“A Pregnancy Test for Schools: The Impact of Education Laws on pregnant and Parenting Students,” National Women’s Law Center, June 2012, accessed 25 June 2012,



[5]“New Mexico Teen Kicked Out of School and Publicly Humiliated for Pregnancy,” ACLU, Press release published 6 March 2012, accessed 25 June 2012,

[6]“A Pregnancy Test for Schools: The Impact of Education Laws on pregnant and Parenting Students.”








[14]Teresa Watanabe, “California leads nation in programs for teen parents, report finds,” L.A. Now, 19 June 2012, accessed 27 June 2012,