Schools failing to support teens who are pregnant or new mothers

The Title IX legislation of 1972 has been celebrated for the dramatic benefits it brought to girls in school sports.

But another group of girls, also guaranteed educational equality through Title IX, have seen little benefit, says Wanda Pillow, a professor of
educational policy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In a new book, “Unfit Subjects: Educational Policy and the Teen Mother” (RoutledgeFalmer), Pillow writes that schools today rarely make even small accommodations for pregnant and mothering teens. As in the pre-Title IX past, the majority of pregnant teens apparently still leave school and don’t return.

In some schools, the old understanding that “when you show, you go” is still in effect – at least in practice, Pillow said. In some larger school systems, pregnant students are encouraged to attend alternative schools, but the quality of these schools is unclear.

Title IX clearly requires access to equal educational opportunity for these students, but the interpretation has been left to the individual schools, Pillow writes. “Presently, beyond forbidding expulsion, there is no case law to enforce or guide the provision of educational services for teen mothers at the local or state level.”

Also lacking are data and research. Schools routinely do not track the educational paths of pregnant and mothering students, Pillow said. Figures are not kept on their numbers, what schools they are in, and their graduation and dropout rates. As a result, she said, only a handful of researchers have tackled the subject.

Pillow has numerous stories of pregnant girls required to squeeze themselves into constricted desk seats, or written up for tardiness or absences related to pregnancy or child care.

She witnessed the chair problem so many times in her research that “it just became this visual for me of how we are still sending a clear message to the pregnant teen that she does not fit within the school, she does not fit within education.”

The message also has been that she is “unfit for education,” Pillow said. Schools and communities struggle with the presence of the pregnant teenager in school, often out of fear of “contamination” – that she will spread sexual immorality to other students, Pillow said.

“People are uncomfortable with teenage sexuality, particularly female sexuality, and pregnancy is an embodiment of that.” Rather than deal with issues related to the teen mother, “what we retreat to every time is ‘we just need to prevent teen pregnancy,’ ” Pillow said.

Her book includes a chapter on abstinence-only education, which she noted is the only form of sex education taught in Illinois and 16 other abstinence-only states. She thinks many parents would be shocked to see some of the materials used in abstinence-only classes, presented to scare teens away from sex.

Pillow notes in her book that while there have always been teen mothers, they were not a focus of policy or public attention before the 1970s. The attention had been on unwed mothers of all ages, and that attention was limited. The principal institution involved was the home for unwed mothers.

Those homes served mainly white, working-class women, and the program emphasized job skills training that would enable the single mother to support herself and her child, Pillow said. The emphasis on training would lead to a later concern about the teen mother’s right to an education, and helped lay the groundwork for Title IX.

But the homes also helped establish a clear pattern of defining the issue of unwed pregnancy by race, Pillow said. “White, unwed mothers were seen as fallen women, women who had made a mistake in their life … but who could be redeemed.” For black women, however, unwed pregnancy was seen more as a “cultural deficit,” Pillow said, and “redeeming” them was not a goal.

Those attitudes, along with concerns about moral contamination, have helped bring about a divided and shifting discussion on teen pregnancy and education, Pillow writes. The divide is between policies that view education for the pregnant or mothering teen as a right, versus those that view it as a responsibility.

“We are still treating white girls, particularly the white girls who are good students, as entitled to an education,” she said, though in reality they still face “severe limitations.” For girls of lower income or racial minorities, however, the perspective is often that they are responsible for their schooling, no matter the barriers, to avoid becoming a “burden on society,” she said.

These divided and shifting views, along with the lack support for teen mothers and lack of research on the issue, are troublesome given the prominence of teen pregnancy in debates about welfare, Pillow said.

In her own research, she talked to many pregnant teens who had been poor students or dropouts, but whose pregnancies were driving them to get more focused on school. “They’re feeling a renewed sense of responsibility and commitment to getting their education. So there’s a window of opportunity there for some girls who we may have given up on, or just stereotyped as bad students.”

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