Girls in Trouble


The recent “hooky party” scandal, in which some middle school girls in Washington Heights were forced to get tests for pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases after they were caught cutting school, has focused on the invasion of the girls’ privacy—and, inevitably, on the racier aspects of the story. While the tabloid headlines screamed about sex, the New York Civil Liberties Union sued Doe and Roe’s middle school as well as the city Department of Education, charging they violated the teenagers’ constitutional rights to privacy, equality, and due process.

But a critical detail has gotten lost amid the salacious details and deserved outrage. The school officials not only asked the girls to take the invasive tests, they also wanted proof of negative results before the girls would be allowed to return. In particular, the higher-ups at I.S. 164 wanted to make sure their students weren’t pregnant.

Though Roe and Doe were reinstated at their middle school in short order, the episode has provided a window into an epic problem for pregnant students. These girls face countless obstacles to their continued attendance in public schools, according to students and their advocates. Partly because of increasing pressure for schools to keep up test scores and attendance rates, these students are academic hot potatoes to city schools. They get tossed about in the system. Some are shunted to special programs for pregnant teens, which are both academically limited and scarce. Others struggle for limited day-care slots. And most end up pushed out of school altogether.

“The Department of Education has basically ignored the educational needs of girls who become pregnant,” says Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “It’s part of an ongoing pattern. The board has failed across the board to undertake any systematic training of its teachers or principals so that they understand and respect the girls’ rights.”

Many female students are pressured to leave the schools they attend when their pregnancies become known, according to the civil liberties group, which, over the past three years, has intervened on behalf of nine such students. Among them were a seventh grader at I.S. 49 in Brooklyn, who was told it was best for her to stay home from school because her pregnancy was a “distraction” to other students, and an 11th grader who was suddenly informed she couldn’t continue attending the high school where she had been enrolled since ninth grade because she was from outside the district.

Partly as a result of this nasty nudging, catastrophic numbers of girls disappear from the school system. An estimated 20,000 mothers under 21 in New York City have yet to complete high school, according to a June report put out by City Comptroller William Thompson. Of those, more than 8,000 are under 18 and required by law to attend school. Though obvious, the consequences of these losses bear repeating: Girls who don’t finish high school make significantly less money and are more likely to end up on welfare. Even kids do better if their mothers stay in school.

The Department of Education insists it is improving services for pregnant and parenting teens.”We will help our students to continue their education during and after pregnancies,” says spokesperson Margie Feinberg.

The Department of Education is required by its own regulations to identify and provide services to pregnant teens, but they reach only a tiny fraction of the girls they should. Fewer than 2,000 girls either received school-based day care or attended a special pregnancy program in the school year beginning in 2000, the most recent for which statistics were available. Meanwhile, official figures put the school dropout rate for girls at 17.8 percent in 2002, up from 15.6 percent three years earlier. It’s not known exactly how many of the 5,781 girls who didn’t make it to graduation this year dropped out because they gave birth, but studies show pregnancy to be the primary reason girls don’t finish high school.

Pregnant girls have had the legal right to remain in city public schools since 1968. But, in a system obsessed with performance and test scores, there are real incentives to drop these academically challenged and challenging kids who could bring down averages. The pressure takes many forms. Pregnant students are often unable to obtain homework assignments or schedule makeup exams; they report widespread hostility from teachers and administrators.

Many times, teens are also wrongly instructed that they must enroll in one of the five programs specifically designed for pregnant teens, which are academically inferior and do not confer diplomas. According to Nadeen Santana, a 17-year-old who attended the Martha Neilson School for pregnant girls in the Bronx, students were only taught four subjects during the school year, and one of them, math, for only a single month. “Most of the time we just sat there doing nothing,” says Santana, who gave birth in February and says three of her 10 closest friends have also gotten pregnant. “We want more subjects, but that was all they had.”

Department of Education officials say they will be improving teaching and learning in these programs.

Meanwhile, an acclaimed program that allows students with children to stay in regular high schools has also been imperiled in recent years. The Living for the Young Family Through Education, or LYFE program, a historically well-funded program that is the biggest of its kind in the country, provided on-site day care for the children of more than 1,300 students in the 2000-2001 school year. But program director Josephine Carson says LYFE provided services to fewer than 600 student parents at its 42 day-care sites during the last year.

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.

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.’ “