The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a Dear Colleague Letter last week that provides guidance for secondary schools regarding compliance with Title IX as it relates to pregnant and parenting students. Citing the more than 329,000 young women ages 15 to 19 years who gave birth in 2011 in the U.S., the OCR wants secondary schools to be aware that Title IX protects pregnant and parenting students from sex discrimination. The pamphlet that accompanied the OCR’s Dear Colleague Letter offers guidance regarding the various requirements with which public schools, as well as all other recipients of federal financial assistance (including post-secondary institutions), must comply.
Under Title IX, schools must take certain actions when working with pregnant and parenting students. The pamphlet provides, among other requirements, that schools must make reasonable and responsive adjustments to the regular school program in accordance with a student’s temporary pregnancy status. Such adjustments could include, for example, a larger desk or access to elevators. Schools must also excuse a student’s absences that are due to pregnancy and its related conditions. Following a student’s pregnancy leave, the student must be reinstated to the status that she held when her pregnancy leave began. To help students make up any missed work, the pamphlet suggests that the school provide the student with multiple options upon her return and allow the student to select among them based upon her preference.
The pamphlet also cautions schools regarding actions that they cannot take in relation to pregnant and parenting students. For example, a school cannot require, or even suggest, that a pregnant student participate in a separate program designed for pregnant or parenting students. The decision must be up to the student as to whether to stay in her regularly scheduled classes or to switch into an educationally comparable alternative program. Additionally, a school could be found in violation of Title IX if its employees or students engage in pregnancy-related harassment and such harassment is encouraged, tolerated, or ignored by school employees.
This pamphlet serves as a helpful resource by not only providing guidelines for compliance with Title IX, but by also outlining additional strategies that administrators, teachers, and counselors can take to better serve the educational needs of pregnant students. It has been more than 20 years since the DOE issued guidance regarding pregnant and parenting students. In light of last week’s updated guidance, it is important for secondary schools and all other institutions receiving federal financial assistance to take this opportunity to ensure that their policies and practices do not result in discrimination against pregnant or parenting students.
*Kent Sparks is currently a law student at the Michigan State University College of Law and is a Franczek Radelet LEADS Fellow.