Girls in Trouble

'Hooky Party' Puts the Spotlight on Schools' Treatment of Pregnant Teens

Like the rest of the school system, the LYFE program suffered across-the-board budget cuts at the end of June. One of its centers, at Sarah J. Hale High School on Dean Street near Third Avenue in Brooklyn, had already been closed at the end of 2001. The closing meant that students who needed day care had to commute to either Community Preparatory School in Downtown Brooklyn or the High School for Telecommunications in Bay Ridge, which requires students to apply. Meanwhile, the LYFE program at John Jay High School in Park Slope, which served 34 children at its peak, is in the process of being closed, and Carson says she doesn't know if another will replace it. "It's all still up in the air."

The consequences of these closings can be devastating to displaced young mothers, according to Joan Davis, who directed the LYFE program for eight years until the end of 2002. "Sometimes these girls can't go to school by virtue of the fact that they have no child-care options," she says. "A lot of these girls don't have anyone. Their mothers aren't home to take care of the babies. And some of them will drop out if they have no child care."

Even students who find their way to schools with LYFE programs can encounter difficulties staying there. One teen mother who was attending John Jay High School last year was told that she had to sign a contract agreeing to be terminated from the program if she failed any courses. Another student, an 11th grader at the Lillian Rashkis School in Brooklyn, was told she couldn't take her three-month-old on the school bus to get to the LYFE program.

I.S. 164, where officials asked two students to prove they weren't pregnant
photo: Michael Appleton
I.S. 164, where officials asked two students to prove they weren't pregnant

In all cases, the schools eventually responded to the efforts of the NYCLU to ensure the girls' rights to attend school. But, according to the NYCLU's Lieberman, the damage was already done. "When you tell a young girl who's pregnant that we don't want you here because you're pregnant, even if you take it back, you've already let her know that she's not welcome here," says Lieberman.

Some experts in the field suggest structural changes to mitigate the forces that ultimately shut so many girls out of school. Davis, the former LYFE program director, suggests that the Department of Education should stop counting absences of pregnant girls as part of overall school attendance records, as some other cities have already done. "Girls have to take a few weeks off after giving birth," says Davis, who advocates a maternity leave of sorts for students. "If you're employed, you get 12 weeks off. A girl gets zero. And that kid is marked absent every day, which counts against the school."

Even better, says Davis, is to start earlier. "These girls need sex education," she says. "That's one of the things that the mothers in the LYFE program always said to me: 'I wish that someone had told me what it would have been like. I wouldn't have done it.' "

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