On June 25, in response to numerous studies indicating that pregnant and parenting students exhibit much lower graduation rates than their peers, the U.S. Department of Education issued a Dear Colleague Letter reminding recipients of federal financial assistance that it is unlawful under Title IX to discriminate against students who have become pregnant or have children. The letter also references a pamphlet that provides additional guidance on retaining and engaging pregnant and parenting students. Although the pamphlet focuses on secondary schools, the relevant legal principles apply to all recipients of federal financial assistance, including postsecondary institutions.
Both the letter and pamphlet stress that it is illegal under Title IX for schools to exclude pregnant and parenting students from participating in any part of an educational program, including extracurricular activities such as clubs, honors programs, homecoming court, or interscholastic sports. In addition, schools must treat pregnant students in the same way that they treat other students with medical conditions that require the attention of a physician. However, as needed, schools must adjust their program in ways that are reasonable and responsive to a student’s pregnancy. The letter makes clear that schools must excuse a student’s absence because of pregnancy or childbirth for as long as the student’s doctor deems medically necessary. Upon her return, the student must be allowed to return to the same academic and extracurricular status as before her medical leave began.
The letter permits schools to implement special instructional programs or classes for pregnant students. However, a school cannot pressure a pregnant student to attend an alternative program, and a pregnant student must be allowed to remain in her regular classes and school if she so chooses. If a school chooses to offer a voluntary alternative program, the program must be comparable in the level of academic quality and diversity to what is provided to other students.
The pamphlet reminds schools that Title IX prohibits harassment of students based on sex, including harassment based on pregnancy. Particular actions that could constitute prohibited harassment include making sexual comments or jokes about a student’s pregnancy, calling a pregnant student names, spreading rumors about a student’s sexual activity, or making sexual gestures.
Finally, the pamphlet provides schools with some examples of possible strategies they may use to address the educational issues associated with pregnant and parenting students. These include:
- Developing policies and procedures to address the needs of pregnant and parenting students;
- Preparing guidance materials for teachers, school nurses, counselors and other staff to help them respond to the needs of pregnant and parenting students;
- Providing workshops and training for teachers and staff directed by the schoolâ€™s attorney or Title IX coordinator;
- Receiving feedback from pregnant and parenting students on ways to help them stay in school;
- Designating private rooms for young mothers to breastfeed or pump milk; and
- Encouraging pregnant and parenting students to take online course work during an excused leave of absence.