Co-authored by Shana Heller-Ogden.
Teen pregnancy and parenting and domestic and sexual violence are significant contributing factors to the dropout and push-out crisis in schools in Illinois and across the country. Elementary and secondary students who are parents, expectant parents, or survivors of domestic or sexual violence face serious and unique challenges as they try to stay in school, stay safe while in school, and successfully complete their education. Such challenges are further complicated by the fact that these students have historically been discriminated against and stigmatized by other students, school personnel, and even the school system. Though some state and federal laws exist to protect students from harassment and discrimination, students who are parents, expectant parents, or survivors of domestic or sexual violence continue to fall between the cracks, pointing to the need for specific legal protections that recognize their right to attend school and complete their education in a safe and encouraging learning environment.
In Illinois, a new report has been released by the Ensuring Success in School Task Force detailing the challenges faced by elementary and secondary students who are parents, expectant parents, or survivors of domestic or sexual violence and making recommendations based on its findings to remove barriers to school success and completion for these students.
The Ensuring Success in School Task Force was created by Public Act 95-0558 in 2007 and was charged developing policies, procedures, and protocols to be adopted by school districts for addressing the educational and related needs of students who are parents, expectant parents, or survivors of domestic or sexual violence. This statewide task force held public hearings in 2008 and 2009 throughout Illinois in Quincy, Elgin, Springfield, Mount Vernon, and Chicago. It collected written and oral testimony from students, parents, advocates, school personnel, and other service providers. It consulted with experts in the field and researched best practices and existing policies in Illinois and other states.
The task force found that schools frequently failed to identify or respond supportively to students who are parents, expectant parents, or survivors of domestic or sexual violence, failed to respect confidentiality, failed to honor orders of protection, and did not provide the basic accommodations that would have allowed these students to stay in school. Students who testified spoke of being harassed by fellow students and by school personnel. They consistently reported a drop in academic performance, and many were forced to transfer or forced into homeschooling. Witnesses also spoke of the prevalence of homelessness and poverty among these students, and the lack of resources or coordination between schools and community organizations to help support this population of students.
The report makes several recommendations to support students who are parents, expectant parents, or survivors of domestic or sexual violence. Among them, some of the most essential are excusing absences related to pregnancy or parenting responsibilities or to dealing with the domestic or sexual violence; allowing make-up work; providing basic in-school accommodations that support school attendance and participation (e.g., letting pregnant students have larger desks, allowing student survivors of domestic violence to change locker locations to increase safety); respecting confidentiality; developing protocol for coordinating with community-based service providers; appointing and training at least one staff member to act as a "liaison" for these students to implement accommodations within school and provide resources, referrals, and information about their rights; and creating clear, written policies and procedures so that students , their parents and school personnel are well informed. The full report, including all of the findings and recommendations, is available on the Shriver Center's website here.
Moving forward, the Shriver Center is working with advocates in Illinois and other states to gain traction for this issue. At the federal level, funding has been designated for state programs to support pregnant and parenting students and young women; Illinois is one of several states that applied for this funding and is awaiting a decision from the newly established Office of Adolescent Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Also at the federal level, Representative Jared Polis (D-CO) introduced the Pregnant and Parenting Students Access to Education Act which reflects much of the goals and the language of the original Ensuring Success in School bill as it relates to expectant and parenting youth. In Illinois, the Shriver Center is working with other advocates on next steps for the task force's recommendations and to create a curriculum to train school personnel on how to recognize and respond appropriately to students who are survivors of domestic or sexual violence and students who are parents or expectant parents. With these and other initiatives, these students who are at risk of poor school performance and/or dropping out have a better chance at being able to stay in school, stay safe while in school, and successfully complete their education.
Wendy Pollack is the Director of the Women's Law and Policy Project at The Shriver Center. To learn more about the Ensuring Success in School Initiative, contact Wendy Pollack at email@example.com.