By Darryl Campagna
Sunday, May 13, 2001
Nearly half a million teens give birth annually and perhaps two-thirds of them never finish high school. Public schools offer little help. Teen moms are treated as pariahs and losers and face humiliation, segregation and discrimination.
(WOMENSENEWS)--"I want to be a cop--that's always been my dream," said Iris Colondres, 17, who lives on her own, works at a McDonald's, and takes her year-old son, Santos Guzman, with her to high school in Buffalo, N.Y. "I'm going to college, too, for criminal justice, and try to be somebody in life."
Even before she became pregnant, Colondres recalled, her stepfather, who lives in New Jersey with her mother, used to say that Colondres and her siblings would be failures. When Colondres did get pregnant at 16, she got little emotional support.
"I had friends that were upset with me for getting pregnant," she said. "My family talked, 'Oh, she's going to be back with her mom. She's going to drop out of school.'" Colondres paused, then added, "I'm still trying to graduate."
Because of pregnancy complications, she had home instruction, but the home tutor showed up so irregularly, Colondres said, that she had to repeat her junior year of high school because she failed courses.
Yet, Colondres is one of the lucky ones. Her high school has only six baby-sitting slots open for its students and, despite the put downs and other hurdles, she is preparing to graduate. She has not forsaken her ambition.
Advocates say that bias against pregnant teens and teen mothers often results in cruel social stigmatization and their being channeled into non-college-prep courses, despite their talents, aspirations and stated wishes. The young men who impregnate them are seldom, if ever, rebuked, while the young women who carry their pregnancy to term are regarded as morally tainted and often placed in separate classes lest they contaminate others with teen sexuality.
Current and accurate statistics are difficult to find, but research by Susan Berke Fogel, legal director for the California Women's Law Center in Los Angeles, indicates that two-thirds of teen mothers do not finish high school, and a high percentage remain poor and have a second child.
All too often, say those tracking the issues, pregnant teens and teen mothers are turned away from their local public schools and shunted into inadequate home schooling or special programs for pregnant girls and young mothers.
In fact, last summer, the New York Civil Liberties Union took up the cause of student mothers after receiving complaints from New York City public school students that school administrators criticized them for getting pregnant and discouraged them from continuing in or returning to their regular school during pregnancy or after the birth of their child.
Interns from the New York Civil Liberties Union posed as pregnant teen-agers to conduct a telephone survey of high school admission offices in New York City. The responses, according to a report issued by the Civil Liberties Union, "varied greatly even in an individual school, depending on who answered the school phone."
The Civil Liberties Union contends that discouraging a pregnant girl from continuing her education, or presenting a special school for pregnant students as the only option, is discrimination based on sex, and violates the federal Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to the U.S. Civil Rights Act.
"If it was a student with a disability, they wouldn't just ask them to leave," said Tiffany Miller, project assistant for the New York Civil Liberties Union's reproductive rights project. "No one ever gets kicked out for impregnating a teen-age girl."
At a time of budget cuts and increasingly conservative attitudes about sexuality education, the question framed in the public policy debates seems to be: Does the presence in school of an unmarried teen mother promote promiscuity--or is it every teen mother's right to attend school and receive an education?
Through all the public debate about them, these young women get an unmistakable message that they are an embarrassment and a bad example, to be kept out of sight and away from other students.
"There are way too many administrators and policy-makers who think anything they do for these girls is a favor," adds Fogel from the California Women's Law Center in Los Angeles.
Fogel is opposed to mandatory assignment to special schools and home schooling, she said, although these alternative settings work for some students. However, studying at home or leaving a regular high school should be an option, not an ultimatum, she said.
"Many times these girls are forced or coerced to go to these schools, and that is illegal," said Fogel, who has represented pregnant students challenging school policies. "And many times, these schools do not have college prep or child care."
Fogel is helping the Los Angeles Unified School District revise outdated policies for dealing with pregnant students. Linda Ward Russell, the district's program coordinator for pregnant and parenting teens, said the district is trying to train staff to offer appropriate help. She acknowledged that some teachers and administrators still push girls into special schools by telling them it is the only way they will graduate.
Such programs, Ward Russell noted, "offer most things that are needed for graduation, but not all things needed for college. Depending on the timing, it can really throw someone off who's college-bound."
Nearly half a million teens give birth every year in what policy-makers call an epidemic of teen pregnancy. The birth rate for all teens--married or not--has declined, and the latest statistics from 1998 indicate 51.1 live births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19, down from 62 per 1,000 in 1991, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The birth rate for unmarried teens has also fallen since 1994. However, the proportion of births to unmarried teens continued to increase, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Of all the teens giving birth, the percent of those who were unmarried rose to 78.9 percent in 1998, up from 13 percent in 1950, with the younger teens being more likely to be unmarried.
Despite, or perhaps because of the declining numbers, teen mothers still face censure and discrimination.
And Latinas face an especially tough path toward graduation, even without the complication of pregnancy-related discrimination, according to a 1998 report on Latinas leaving high school funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Hispanic girls ages 15 to 19 had the highest birth rate of any group, according to the National Center for Health Statistics--93.6 per 1,000--and were less likely to return to school after giving birth.
However, with fewer pregnant students to provide for, and in the face of budget cuts and more conservative attitudes about sexuality education in public schools, many school districts are closing special schools for pregnant students, said Wendy Luttrell, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who is completing a book about teen pregnancy and schooling.
The closing of special schools raises questions about what services and attitudes will take their place. Luttrell notes what she calls a disturbing trend: Pregnant students in some states are being classified as "special education" or "special need" students because that is the only way districts can get extra funds to help them. Those labels are inappropriate, and add to the stigma already assigned to these girls, Luttrell said.
The pregnancy "is what ends up getting punished," said Luttrell.
Critics of alternative programs say that home instruction and special schools for pregnant teens are sometimes more disruptive than helpful. Teen mothers who move into a special school for a few months and then back out can find it difficult to return to their regular school.
Even well-meaning faculty can send the wrong message to teens in special schools, by subtly emphasizing the need to get an education for the sake of supporting the baby, and not encouraging the girl to get an education for her own sake, said Luttrell at Harvard.
Even when a school district tries to incorporate teen mothers into the regular academic program, the services can be woefully inadequate. The Los Angeles Unified School District offers child care at nine of its 50 high schools, said Linda Ward Russell, who is working with Fogel, of the Women's Law Center, on the new policy for pregnant teens.
"The idea that getting you pregnant gets you stupid has to be erased," Fogel said. "Our long-term goal in this work is to shift the paradigm and to let pregnant and parenting teens get the education required under the law. And when schools fail to provide them with educational opportunities, that is illegal discrimination."
The Buffalo, N.Y., school district closed its special school for pregnant students three years ago due to a multi-million-dollar budget deficit. That left two high schools with programs for teen mothers.
The student mothers at Grover Cleveland are expected to meet the same academic requirements as their peers. Principal Benjamin Randle thinks these young women do better in a regular academic setting than in a segregated one and says many of the students with children in the babysitting service have graduated.
Jan Peters, a Buffalo school board member, estimates that there are 500 to 600 school-aged mothers in the district, but the district's child care services reach fewer than 200 teens. It is impossible to know how many mothers have already dropped out because the district does not track their reason for leaving school, she said.
"It becomes much more difficult for these parenting teens when they have to get their child to an outside day care, drop their child off and get themselves to school," said Peters, who heads the city's largest anti-poverty agency.
"People are constantly divided--if you have the baby in school, does that promote promiscuity? Or is that an exercise of their right to go to school?" Peters asked. "It becomes even more complex with seventh-graders--they push them out into home instruction."
All Colondres knows is that she is determined to have a future. Her Grover Cleveland High School is one of two Buffalo schools that now provide child care.
At Grover Cleveland, the service does not meet the stringent state guidelines for a licensed day-care center, and is called a "baby-sitting service" instead of a "day-care center." The baby-sitting service can only handle six children, but next year it will be expanded into a full day-care center, and capacity will more than double.
Colondres and Janet Rodriguez transferred to Grover Cleveland to take advantage of the help and say the child-care assistance makes it possible for them to aim for college.
Rodriguez, like Colondres, is clear about what the program has done for her.
"I'm graduating this year," said Janet Rodriguez, 19, who married her baby's father and takes her 2-year-old son, Victor, to school. "I left when I got pregnant with the baby and I came back because of the babysitting."
Darryl Campagna, a free-lance writer in Albany, N.Y., has written extensively on child welfare issues. As a newspaper reporter, she covered urban school districts in New York and Connecticut.
The California Women's Law Center:
New York Civil Liberties Union, Reproductive Rights Project:
U.S. Department of Education, ERIC: