Teen Pregnancy, Discrimination, and the Dropout Rate

Monday, October 25, 2010

When teens get pregnant, most drop out of school. When they drop out of school, they likely face a life of economic insecurity. And the role that discrimination plays in their decisions to drop out raises serious civil rights concerns.

So, it was good news to read an article in the Seattle Times recently reporting that in Washington state, overall teen pregnancy rates are declining. It was bad news to see the growing disparity between the pregnancy rates of students in higher-income white communities compared to lower-income communities of color. 

For example, just-released data from the Centers for Disease Control shows that in the more affluent Issaquah-Sammamish area, the birth rate for girls age 15 to 17 is 1.6 per 1000, while in less affluent Burien it’s 16 times that at 27 per 1000.  In Northeast Seattle the rate is 1.7 per 1000, but in Southeast Seattle it’s 18 per 1000.  This stark disparity reflects a trend we have been seeing for several decades: Pregnancy among White and Asian students has steadily decreased, while pregnancy rates for American Indian/Alaskan Native, Hispanic and Black students have been unchanged.  Some studies suggest that in the Hispanic community 1 in 2 teenage girls become pregnant, in contrast to the national average of 1 in 4.

These pregnancy rates play a key role in the significant disparity in high school graduation rates between these same groups of teen girls. Pregnancy is the #1 reason girls drop out of school.  Approximately 70% of teenage girls who give birth leave school.  More than any other group of high school dropouts, girls who leave due to pregnancy report that they would have stayed in school if they had received greater support from the adults at school.

Illegal discrimination against these girls by school administrators, teachers, counselors and fellow students is a major contributing factor to their high dropout rates.  Also, research shows that when schools make an effort to support pregnant girls in their education, they can have a significant impact in lowering their drop-out rates.

Discrimination against pregnant students is strictly prohibited by Title IX – the federal law banning sex discrimination in public schools – but it is widespread nonetheless.  Sometimes even the most subtle forms of discrimination can be enough to push pregnant teens out of school.  Schools refusing to give excused absences for pregnancy related doctor’s appointments, teachers refusing to allow make-up work, counselors coercing students into substandard alternative schools, excluding them from school activities based on “morality” codes, disparaging, discouraging and disapproving comments from adults and students – all of these can be illegal, yet all occur and contribute to the high dropout rates.

So, tackling discriminatory practices isn’t only a matter of seeking equal treatment for all students. It also can have a big impact on the life prospects of students. The ACLU-WA is committed to working in the education system to increase awareness about the legal rights of pregnant students and to promote best practices by school districts.

Do you have a story of your own?

If you or someone you know personally has been treated poorly at school because they are pregnant or have a child, please let us know. We may be able to help, and your story may help others in the same situation.