The start of the academic year brings hope and optimism, and as an educator in the Sacramento City Unified School District, I can appreciate the excitement that students and instructors feel as they adjust to new schedules and routines.
I find myself empathizing with students who are pregnant or parenting because they have an added layer of difficulty as they manage child care, doctor’s appointments and pumping breaks on top of demands of being a student.
I can relate.
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In 2002, I returned to my classes at Sacramento State 10 days after giving birth, knowing that a prolonged absence could result in being dropped from my courses. I remember rushing to the bathroom during class breaks, fumbling with the complicated components of a breast pump while sitting in a stall, trying my best to fill bottles for my newborn child.
Juggling parenthood and school wasn’t new to me.
I had my first child – a son – during my junior year of high school in 1997. Two weeks into a summer school class, I was hospitalized with severe morning sickness. I found myself devoid of energy, dehydrated, malnourished.
I was further sickened upon learning that my absences due to my medical condition were deemed unexcused by the school. I was to be removed from class, without credit.
Adding insult to injury, a classmate alerted me that the teacher had informed students I had been dropped from class due to pregnancy complications. Up until this point, I had not shared news of my pregnancy with anyone but family and close friends. I felt embarrassed and disrespected. What I didn’t know was that my personal rights under federal law had been violated. Unfortunately, my experience is not an isolated one.
Pregnant and parenting students report widespread incidents of the discrimination they face, often unaware that these actions are unlawful. Title IX protects students from discrimination based on their “actual or potential parental, family or marital status” or based on a student’s “pregnancy, childbirth, false pregnancy, termination of pregnancy or recovery therefrom.”
The discrimination that pregnant and parenting students face further exacerbates the barriers they already deal with while attempting to meet their educational goals.
It is common for pregnant or expecting high school students to be advised by staff to enroll in alternative programs such as continuation schools or home studies, while others are steered to the path of getting a GED. These programs are often inferior compared to the traditional courses that students are pushed out of.
At the college level, parenting students report being dropped for absences that should have been allowed under Title IX, and they are faced with policies that are not conducive to reasonable lactation accommodations. In addition, advisers sometimes suggest that students drop out or switch programs due to their parenting status or they exclude qualified pregnant students from internships.
Faced with these and other obstacles, many pregnant and parenting students drop out of school, lowering their chances of finding stable employment that will let them support their families.
Every student deserves a fair chance at success.
I found my success. I graduated from Sac State with a master’s degree in education. My oldest son, Elijah, graduated from Kennedy High School with honors and is now an ambitious sophomore at UC Davis.
My journey was difficult but could have been markedly less stressful for my children and me had I been aware of the rights afforded me under Title IX.
We have a collective responsibility to support all students and provide them with the resources they need to complete their educational goals. By doing so, we are improving our communities as a whole, and the impact trickles down for generations.
Christina Marie Martinez is an early education instructor in the Sacramento City Unified School District and a co-founder of #NoTeenShame, an advocacy group. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.