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School Discriminated Against Pregnant Student, Complaint Says

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A Georgia high school failed to uphold its obligations to a pregnant student under Title IX when it failed to provide her with homebound instruction during a period of bedrest and when it refused to excuse absences caused by pregnancy and recovery from an emergency cesarean delivery, a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights says.

The complaint was filed by the National Women's Law Center against Washington-Wilkes Comprehensive High School and Wilkes County Schools in Washington, Ga., on behalf of Mikelia Seals. She says she will have to repeat her spring 2014 semester because of the school's actions, delaying her planned 2015 graduation. The office for civil rights must now investigate if the school violated the federal civil rights law, a claim the district's superintendent denied in a phone interview.

Schools are obligated to provide pregnant students the same services they provide to students with other short-term medical conditions to help keep their academics on track, the Education Department said in civil rights guidance it issued 2013. According to the "Dear Colleague" letter:

Schools must treat pregnant students in the same way that they treat similarly situated students. Thus, any special services provided to students who have temporary medical conditions must also be provided to pregnant students. Likewise, a student who is pregnant or has given birth may not be required to submit medical certification for school participation unless such certification is also required for all other students with physical or emotional conditions requiring the attention of a physician.

A school must excuse a student's absences because of pregnancy or childbirth for as long as the student's doctor deems the absences medically necessary. When a student returns to school, she must be allowed to return to the same academic and extracurricular status as before her medical leave began. By ensuring that the student has the opportunity to maintain her academic status, we can encourage young parents to work toward graduation instead of choosing to drop out of school.

The Education Department said it received about 1,000 Title IX complaints in 2010. A spokesman did not provide more updated numbers or detail how many of those complaints are related to pregnancy.

Seals' complaint says a school official told her the district did not provide homebound instruction services for pregnant students, even after she presented a note from her doctor. In addition, the school's handbook requires students to receive permission from a doctor if they wish to continue with school after being pregnant, the complaint says. The National Women's Law Center said it previously discussed similar issues with the Wilkes County school system in 2008 and won a statewide policy change for pregnant students in Georgia as a result. From the complaint:

The Wilkes County Board of Education policy for pregnant students starts with the negative presumption that pregnant students will not want to continue attending school or make up missed schoolwork, by requiring pregnant and parenting students to prove, with a doctor's note, that they are able to continue attending school. The policy also provides that the principal of the school will notify the student and her doctor when the principal believes the nature of school activities has become hazardous to the student's health, which assumes the principal can make such a medical judgment. This policy not only burdens pregnant and parenting students but also violates Title IX if the same is not required of all students with medical conditions requiring the treatment of a doctor.

Wilkes County Superintendent Rosemary Caddell said in a phone interview that she had not seen the complaint before she received phone calls from reporters asking about the allegations. Caddell also said she was not aware of Seals' concerns until she learned of the complaint. Pregnant students can receive homebound instruction by following the same process students with other medical needs must follow, which is detailed in the student handbook, along with a process for filing grievances, Caddell said. That handbook was not accessible on the district's website Monday. Caddell said that the website is being updated over the summer, and that the policy is normally posted online. The website hosts the school board's policy on homebound instruction, which does discuss pregnancy.

Nationally, pregnancy frequently creates a hurdle for school completion for teen parents. "Twenty six percent of young men and young women combined who had dropped out of public high schools—and one-third of young women—said that becoming a parent was a major factor in their decision to leave school," the federal guidance said. "And, only 51 percent of young women who had a child before age 20 earned their high school diploma by age 22."

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