This week, in Sierra Leone, all but “visibly pregnant girls” are welcome to return to school after nine months of the Ebola crisis. The government has banned these girls from attending school, due to the “negative impacts they will have on innocent girls”. Innocent girls. Think about that for a second. Juxtaposing pregnant and non-pregnant girls places value on one group and not the other. More specifically, in this case, pregnant equals not-innocent…as in guilty. But what are they guilty of exactly? Wanting pleasure? Having sex? Being raped? Becoming pregnant? Staying pregnant? Wanting to continue to learn while pregnant? What is it? It is time for adults to come to terms with the sexual health, sexual identities and sexual rights of youth. In particular, it is time for adults to stop punishing young women for their sexuality, and definitely for their own pregnancies. After all, they did not become pregnant on their own. When fathers are allowed to learn and mothers are pushed out of school, children and families suffer. Sierra Leone might be far away but similar societal judgment of pregnant youth is just as prevalent right here in our back yard, with grave consequences.
While in the United States it is illegal to exclude people from school on the basis of sex, gender, and pregnancy status under Title IX, it doesn’t mean that pregnant students are welcomed at school. Often students do not know their rights under Title IX. In fact, most people don’t even know what Title IX is. If they do, it is only related to gender equity in sports, or sexual harassment in college. Frankly, many public school district administrators don’t know either.
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. In a recent town-hall meeting in the Chicagoland area, hosted by the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health (ICAH), many young people talked about how they deferred to the authority of teachers, counselors and principals who told them that leaving school would be best for them. Even well-intentioned teachers can sometimes discriminate against pregnant youth, under the guise of what they think is helpful, even if the law says otherwise. For instance, on high-school student said:
They told me that I would be more comfortable if I changed schools and went to a school for pregnant girls, but in the end, it was harder. I had to leave my neighborhood, my friends and travel much farther and spend much more to get to the new school.”
Under Title IX, pregnant youth have the right to stay at their school.
“The school staff told me that I could not take the elevator because I was pregnant and needed to take the stairs. But they let the football players with injuries take the elevator.”
Under Title IX, pregnant youth have the right to be comfortable and accommodated.
They told me that I did not fit the image of this school, and was setting a bad example.”
Under Title IX, pregnant youth have the right to be treated fairly and equally.
All of these youth are eligible to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, which holds districts accountable after complaints by investigating the climate of the school, providing professional development for the administration and, in a worse case scenario, withholding funding. Most people don’t know that they even have the right to complain and without complaint, no one can be held accountable.
The societal messages about sex and pregnancy are at best confusing and at worst unjust. Youth are completely inundated with sexualized images to sell nearly every product. However, the prevailing message about sex is “Just don’t do it.” With only 22 states with mandated Sex Education, we send the message that youth are not worth teaching about anatomy, contraception, reproduction, gender identity, healthy relationships and more. However when young people become pregnant whether by accident, abuse or intention, we fall short of acknowledging the ways that we are systematically failing them and refuse to treat them as equal human beings.
More than half the school districts in the country are unwilling to teach youth about contraception to prevent pregnancy or about pregnancy options. When youth become pregnant, despite Title IX recommendations, we fail to support their pregnancies, and if they choose to not carry a pregnancy to term, we place barriers to accessing abortion in 38 out of 50 states. If anyone is “guilty,” it’s the adults who are tasked with caring and stewarding the development of youth into adulthood. Until we have systemically and societally done our part to adequately address the reproductive health-care needs of youth, we have no right to judge them or push them out of school for their choices or circumstances.
The argument of the cosmetic “value” of having a pregnant-free school setting is far outweighed by the consequences of pushing youth out of school. The damage of excluding youth from school impacts not just a pregnant person but their child and family. Not only is this illegal, but it is immoral and inhumane. Once a young person has already decided to parent, and is already parenting, our communities only serve to benefit by mobilizing around them to figure out how to help them succeed, rather than create more barriers for them. If we aren’t going to proactively give young people the tools to be safe, affirmed and healthy, we at least owe it to them not to leave them behind when they need us most.
(Yamani Hernandez, is the outgoing Executive Director of the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health, the incoming Executive Director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, a Ford Foundation Public Voices Fellow and a writer for Echoing Ida, a project of Forward Together.)