The Hechinger Report is a non-profit news organization that focuses on education innovation and inequality. This story was about pregnant students.
LaTavia BigBack, a high school junior at the time, was in a car accident with her friends when she was 17. The doctor asked her if she was okay with her friends being there. He had some good news for her. BigBack replied that she didn’t think she was having a concussion. The doctor confirmed that she was pregnant. She still remembers the expressions of her friends years later and she still weeps when she thinks about them. “I felt ashamed and scared, because me and my friend were so young.”
She thought about an abortion but her boyfriend, aged 23, disappeared and she didn’t have the money. She said, “It was expensive and he kept faking on the appointments.” “So I was forced to accept the pregnancy.
The unkind comments and judgmental attitudes began to spread as soon as she was pregnant. Except for one friend who was in the accident, all others pulled away. No one wanted her to be in the group she was assigned for group projects. Her teachers did not acknowledge her growing belly and the school counselor didn’t offer any suggestions.
She was never a good student and fell further behind. At four and a quarter months old, she finally confided in her father. BigBack’s mom noticed that her daughter was craving strawberries a few weeks later. BigBack felt more isolated in school and dropped out of high school her junior year.
She said, “If anyone encouraged me, gave me support, then I would have stayed.” BigBack, who was seven and a quarter months old, had swollen feet, an anxious heart and began two part-time jobs: a server at a restaurant and a Walmart cashier. She felt helpless and bounced around between the houses of her divorcing parents. “I felt like my whole life was over,” she said.
BigBack’s story is alarmingly familiar.
Title IX of 1972’s Education Amendments of 1972 has been in effect for fifty years. Although the law is best known for its requirement that schools provide equal opportunities for women in sports, it was also intended to ban discrimination based upon sex in all educational programs and activities, including extracurricular and academic, that receive federal funding. The law provides for the right to education for parents and students who are pregnant.
The federal civil rights law is frequently misunderstood, ignored, or flagrantly violated by public schools. In Louisiana, a charter school required that students take a pregnancy test. If they failed or were positive, the school forced them to leave. A New Mexico school administrator forced a middle-schooler to announce that she was pregnant. Two teenagers from Michigan were told that they could not show their baby bumps on their school yearbook photos.
These incidents received a lot attention but most pregnant students, such as BigBack, speak of subtler “pushouts” that cause them to stop their education. A guidance counselor suggesting that they switch to an online program; a teacher taking them out of an honors class or extracurricular activity; and a principal not responding to harassment reports. These are all illegal but commonplace. Some educators believe that providing childcare or being a parent to students in schools will encourage them to become pregnant.
These students have poor educational outcomes, partly because of this. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that only half of teens receive high school diplomas by the age of 22. This compares to approximately 90 percent of their peers who don’t have children. According to a 2006 report by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, less than 2 per cent of mothers under age 18 finish college by age 30.
This student population is already being disadvantaged by schools. The U.S. Supreme Court recently revoked the constitutional right to abort, leaving it up for states to decide. Advocates worry that more parents and students will be pregnant if they allow abortion to be banned or restricted in other states .
Wendy Luttrell, a professor at the CUNY Graduate Center in urban education and author of “Pregnant Bodies, Fetile Minds: Gender, Race, and the Schooling for Pregnant Teens,” stated that a rise in the number of pregnant teens and parents is a commonsense prediction. However, she cautioned that schools are still not equipped to support them as they were when she wrote the book, 20 years ago.
She said, “It’s alarming because if that hasn’t happened in 20 years, then what’s the best way to address an increase?” Even though data shows that pregnant teens can be supported, and can be on a path to educational success, it is alarming.
In 1995, President Bill Clinton declared teen pregnancy “our greatest social problem.” In 1991, 61.8 births were recorded for every 1,000 females aged 15-19 in the United States. This is compared to 15.4 for 1,000 in 2020. This is a 75% drop.
The causes of the decline include teens not having sex as often, more access to contraception, and the popularity of reality TV programs like “16 and Pregnant,” that showed the struggles of young mothers.
Advocates say that the declining rate for teenage pregnancy is a double-edged knife. While it’s a positive development, it also means that the issue has received less attention and has had to be supported with fewer resources. Pregnancy Assistance Fund, which was a federal grant program of $25 million that provided support services to young parents in order for them to finish school, has ended in 2020.
Some programs that help prevent pregnancy have been criticized. Title X Family Planning Program, for example, funds clinics that provide contraception (except abortion) to millions low-income women. The Trump administration banned providers from referring patients to abortion, except in very rare cases. Nearly 1,000 clinics were forced out of the program. It’s not clear how many clinics have returned, even though the Biden administration reversed this rule.
Rachel Fey, Power to Decide vice president for policy and strategic alliances, stated that “[Those clinics] were an important place where young people went to get care.” “So the Title X program’s damage has had a real reverberating impact on young people.”
About a third of states require that schools offer sex education that meets medical standards. Jennifer Driver, the senior director of reproductive rights at the State Innovation Exchange, which works with state legislators and nonprofits, stated that “This country has repeatedly failed youth and their access to comprehensive sexual education.” Many students receive abstinence education, if any, but these students must live with the consequences.
Despite the decline in U.S. teenage pregnancy rates, it remains one of the highest in developed countries. In 2020, there were nearly 160,000 babies born to 15- to-19-year-olds.
Teachers and non-profit staff who work with parenting teens and pregnant women are anticipating an increase in their clientele.
Lumen High School, Spokane, Washington was founded by Shauna Edwards. It serves both pregnant and parenting teens. She is preparing to welcome “quite some more students” from Idaho. This state, where abortions will soon be considered a felony, has also been invited. Edwards stated that not enough thought was given to the impact of this ruling on young mothers.
She stated that no matter what side you are on, access to abortion must be restricted. States need to be ready and offer more services if they want to do so. “Pro-life must be defined as someone’s entire life. This would include increased state support and more school options.
The school offers classes five days per week for approximately 60 students. It also provides child care on-site, a full time social worker, mental and medical health care, and clothing and resource bank services.
Hope House Colorado is run by Lisa Steven. It offers a residential program for teenage mothers and other support services. However, Colorado recently passed a law that allows abortions. Teenage mothers don’t have that kind of information and believe everything they see or hear on social media. They’ll believe whatever social media says about ‘You won’t be able to have an abortion’.
Steven is currently in the process to open a Hope House affiliate Nashville. She said that Tennessee’s strict abortion laws mean she expects to see more teenage pregnancies there.
Hope House offers a variety of services that include counseling, parenting classes, and education. Steven, a former teenage mom, says her staff helped many mothers purchase their first home. As many of these women are in custody or support disputes with their fathers, they offer legal assistance at no cost. Teens learn how to get their birth certificates, a driver’s licence and a social security card. Many teens struggled in school so they are paired with tutors at Hope House.
Steven stated that educators aren’t aware of Title IX requirements. They offer very few accommodations for students who might not be sleeping through the night due to a newborn, postpartum depression, or are trying to get to school on time with a backpack, a baby carrier, and a stroller. She finds that most of her teens drop out by ninth grade. She said, “School isn’t made to feel safe for them.”
She agreed with other advocates that poor student outcomes don’t need to be the norm. Schools should recognize their strengths. Steven said that teenage moms are extremely motivated by their kids — they call it “mommy motivation” They have grit, they can solve problems and they are flexible. They will do anything for their child to have a better future than the one they had. They can’t do it alone.
Sometimes, those obstacles can be transportation, child care, or health problems. Of course, the problem is often in the school environment.
In a 2015 report, the American Civil Liberties Union of California discovered that teenage moms feel “pushed out” of schools by their educators’ shameful behavior. The National Women’s Law Center also found that nearly half of pregnant and parenting women felt like other students didn’t want their presence at school. Nearly 40% felt the same way about teachers. They also stated that they were often subject to harassment at school, making them feel unsafe.
Analidis Ochoa is now a doctoral student in sociology and social work at the University of Michigan. She was previously a tutor at an alternative school in Miami-Dade for parenting and pregnant girls. Ochoa said that there was a negative culture judgment at the school, even though it was a school for such students. Ochoa was frequently called upon to translate for Spanish-speaking families. She recalled one mother calling repeatedly to inform her that her daughter had been absent. The mother explained to Ochoa that her daughter had recently had a miscarriage, and was not doing well. She received the following response: “Well, tell her this, then her can’t return. She can’t return to school if she doesn’t have a child.
Ochoa, a former teenager parent, knows what it takes to keep kids in school. So she wanted to help them get into college. Ochoa stated that she was surprised by the low academic expectations of the young mothers. There was no expectation that they would go on to higher education. Ochoa couldn’t explain why. She said, “I have always believed that you are not only improving the mother’s lives, but also the child’s.” “And so it is a way to intervene to mitigate intergenerational poverty.”
Wendy Luttrell is a CUNY professor in urban education. She said that there is still a bias towards these students. She said that there is still a stigma attached to being pregnant. She stated that there are very few programs for parents and pregnant teens in the same school, or alternative schools, that offer the same curriculum. She said that if you don’t have the same types of coursework, your future will be limited to what you do have access too.
These teenagers are likely to suffer severe social and financial consequences if they leave high school. People without a high school diploma are more likely to have lower lifetime earnings, be less dependent on social services programs, and experience higher levels of unemployment. Even more concerning is the outcomes of children of teenage mothers. They score lower in behavior, health, and intellectual assessments than their older siblings. Research shows that babies born to teen mothers are more likely have low birth weights and to be abused and neglected more often than their older siblings. They are also less likely to finish high school and are more likely become parents.
Teen moms can still thrive with the right support. BigBack was introduced to Hope House by a friend and enrolled in parenting classes at the Hope House. She moved in to the Hope House residential program when she became pregnant again. She decided to finish her high school diploma online. It’s not all about me anymore. She said that it’s all about their future and them. “I don’t want them having any excuse not to finish high school. That was another thing that was huge for me. As if I had two children and was able finish high school. Both of them should be capable of finishing high school.
BigBack, a 21-year-old mother of a 3-year old daughter and an eight-week-old boy, is today BigBack. She proudly held her son in a Mickey Mouse onesie while she interviewed at Zoom. Her eyes were bright. She met with the career coordinator and completed applications to colleges. She learned in July that she had been accepted at the Metropolitan State University of Denver. She plans to enroll here this fall.
BigBack stated that her life would have been very different if she had not received the additional support. BigBack believes she would have lost custody over her children. She said, “I honestly wouldn’t have had them with us.”
Advocates say that Title IX is an opportunity for parents and students to be protected as the Biden administration examines it this year. The National Women’s Law Center conducted a 2012 study of state laws and policies and found that almost half of the states did not have any statewide programs, grants, or support specifically for parenting students. In addition, less than half of the states made homebound instruction services or hospitalizations available to pregnant or parenting students.
“How will we educate all these young parents?” Janet Max, president and CEO of Healthy Teen Network, said that she doesn’t believe that this is part of the dialogue. She stated that anti-abortion activists who tried to repeal Roe don’t talk about supporting young parents and their babies. “There doesn’t seem to be any plan for the consequences of this other than ending Roe and ending abortion access.”
Laura Echevarria is the communications director at the National Right to Life organisation. She agrees that young mothers need more support. She said that many programs that should have been created never had the chance to be implemented. This can change, however. This mantra must change. It is not enough to say, “Get an abortion,” it should be “What can we do?
Echevarria said that there is still much to be done after Roe was overturned by the Supreme Court. Echevarria describes it as “a halfway point” in which the more than 3,000 chapters across the U.S. are preparing to expand programs and services for young mothers. “This allows them to now say, ‘How do we help now that our hands aren’t tied by Roe restrictions?’
Echevarria stated that some states have already begun to respond to the expected increase in pregnancies by creating programs that will benefit teenage mothers. South Dakota, for example, launched a new website that provides information about parenting, financial assistance, and adoption. As part of an amendment to the law banning abortions on the basis of Down syndrome diagnosis, West Virginia has recently passed legislation. This allows parents who know that their child will have Down syndrome as a condition to connect with community resources. Georgia passed a law that makes it easier for non-profits to run group homes for pregnant women and their children. Some states are exploring tax-dollar funding options to expand and finance pregnancy centers that provide prenatal care and education. Echevarria expects to see more legislation in the United States that is “protective for unborn babies.”
The U.S. Department of Education recently released Title IX changes. Cassandra Mensah (National Women’s Law Center counsel) called the proposed protections “overall” a positive and necessary step that could help parenting students and pregnant women stay in school.
Mensah stated that the new rules would require schools to offer support for students who breastfeed.
Mensah also stated that schools must give students leave for childbirth and pregnancy, but don’t always consider other issues that could affect their attendance. Mensah said that their grades could drop, and they can be found to be truant if they miss more than a set number of days.
Schools will be required to allow teens to have time off during pregnancy for as long a doctor, not just a medical professional, determines necessary. While Title IX regulations don’t specifically mention schools’ role in harassing pregnant or parenting students, the proposed changes clarify that Title IX prohibits harassment of any kind and that schools will be required to investigate allegations in a prompt and equitable manner.
Advocates want more regulations to help. Currently, schools are not required to collect basic information about this population. Lisette Orellana Eng, vice president of National Crittenton, which supports teens parents, stated that “a lot of districts don’t actually know how many of them are pregnant or parenting — this is part of the problem.” It is difficult to determine the services needed and track how many teenage moms drop out or graduate.
Lisa Steven of Hope House said that it was vital for schools to designate a peer advocate for teens, someone they can trust, and this is Lisa Steven. Steven stated that teen moms want to be accepted. She said that teens are looking for a safe place to feel accepted and not judged.
Advocates would also like to see greater accountability and more severe consequences for schools who don’t adhere to Title IX. They suggested that the law should mandate and enforce harsher penalties for school personnel who disregard the rules.
Lanitta Berry was raised by her parents and there were no adults in school who could help her escape a difficult home. When her mother died, she was only 10 years old. She took over the adult responsibilities of housekeeping. She went from being an honors student, to fighting in school. Berry claimed that she was never asked about her life at school in Charlotte, North Carolina. Berry would not have said anything, even if asked.
She had a crush upon a 15-year old boy living in her apartment. When she was a teenager, he became interested in her. Berry claimed that she learned everything about sex from her school and church. They were very strict on abstinence. “Like, you shouldn’t have sex. It’s wrong. It’s bad. They should have explained why, but I’m not sure. Why can’t I have sex prior to marriage? Why?”
Berry was 13 when she became pregnant. She didn’t know anyone to talk to about sex and her middle school classmates told her that her boyfriend would not be able to get her pregnant. Berry was 13 when she became pregnant. Berry recalls that Berry and her sister tried to find a doctor but no one was willing to treat her, as she was too young. She was placed in foster care, where she received treatment.
She found school difficult, not because of the classes she enjoyed, but because of the parents of her classmates. Berry stated that her classmates were cruel to Berry when she started to show affection. They gave me dirty looks and side eye. “I remember one parent saying, “If I ever see my children get pregnant, I’ll beat them A-S-S.”
She saw a double standard in whispered conversations at middle-school. She said that there were white children who got pregnant. It was just that their parents had the money to afford them abortions so that no one would find out. But you also have children who are less fortunate and get pregnant. It’s always, “Oh, look at them.” They are too fast.” When she reached high school, she moved to another school so that none of her teachers knew she was pregnant.
Berry stated that being a foster kid paradoxically helped her because the state paid for food, shelter, and a voucher to day care. Berry was awarded a scholarship by the state to study at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She graduated in spring with a degree of business administration and finance. Berry claimed that she is the only teenager parent she knows to have finished college. All the other parents dropped out to find full-time work to care for their children. They tell Berry that they are more educated when they have the chance to be promoted or given a raise. Many feel stuck, she said.
She said that young parents are among the most dedicated people she knows. They know that their children’s futures depend on what they do next. “And I tell people all of the time that the worst pain a parent can feel is knowing that they are unable give their child a great future. This is the most devastating pain.
Berry had always hoped that her daughter would live a different life than hers. Violet was her name. She explained that Violet was the color of royalty and she landed on Violet. “And I just wanted it to be symbolic.”
Students like Berry can become the norm with support. Steven of Hope House said that they should. She stated that if we want to decrease the abortion rate, we need to not only reduce the abortions but also make sure the lives of the children who were not aborted are safe and stable. As a society, we must provide the support the mother needs to raise her child in a safe, stable environment.
“I would tell you, “Put your money where it is needed.”
Neal Morton, Caroline Preston contributed to this article.