Dateline Texas

De-Schooling in Luling


Last month, media from The New York Times to ESPN made much of the 30th anniversary of the enactment of Title IX, the landmark education legislation which outlawed gender discrimination by schools that receive federal funds, opening doors for female athletes–and raising the ire of some male ones. The National Wrestling Coaches Association chose to mark the occasion by suing the Education Department for the way it enforces the statute. Although the coaches lost, the Bush Administration responded to the case by launching a Commission on Opportunity in Athletics, which Title IX supporters believe is a prelude to weakening the law.

While the reverse-discrimination controversy makes headlines throughout the country, a different Title IX battle is being fought in Luling, 45 miles southeast of Austin. A little-known section of the law specifically forbids discrimination against students on the basis of “pregnancy, childbirth, false pregnancy, termination of pregnancy, or recovery therefrom.” Two Luling women say that their school banned them because they were pregnant–and that other students have suffered a similar fate. If their class-action lawsuit against the Luling Independent School District is successful, or a settlement is reached before the case is heard in August, its impact could extend beyond an affirmation that pushing pregnant girls out of school is illegal. Advocates hope it will set a new standard that equitable treatment of pregnant students means schools must provide health and counseling services to meet their special needs.

Margaret Contreras, one of the two women suing the school district, is a petite 19-year-old who lives with her mother and two children just off U.S. 90, a strip of gas stations and fast food restaurants running parallel to the old Southern Pacific Railroad line. On the other side of the tracks is the historic downtown built during Luling’s oil boom in the 1920s, when the population exploded to a then-bustling 5,000. The town hasn’t grown, or bustled much, since.

Contreras wears bib overalls and perches on a hard-backed chair in the converted garage that serves as both her mother’s bedroom and a sitting room for guests. As an air conditioner wheezes futilely in the corner, she explains that when she first became pregnant at age 16, like most in her situation, she was scared. Money was tight. She had never been a particularly strong student. Worse, two years earlier, school administrators had forced her older sister Celia Leon out of school when she became pregnant. So, Contreras waited until her fifth month before telling anyone at Luling High.

Despite fears of a repeat of her sister’s experience, she had heard that some schools offer services for pregnant students. She approached the principal hoping for encouraging words about home instruction, maybe parenting classes or prenatal check-ups. Instead, he told her that not only did the school not offer pregnancy services, but that she could no longer attend regular classes. To get her diploma, she says, the principal gave her no other option but to take a GED class at night, so her fellow students wouldn’t see her swelling belly. “They said it was inappropriate, that I would be a bad influence on the other students,” she says. “I just kept thinking, ‘why are you being so cruel?'”

In a state where abstinence-only is the rule for sex education, it’s not surprising that when schools deny the existence of teenage sex, some will also try to deny its results. With no statewide requirements for addressing pregnant students’ needs, districts’ reactions range from offering comprehensive pregnancy programs to quietly showing such students the door.

“There are certainly districts where pregnancy is still punished,” says Linda Crawford, state contact for the Pregnancy, Education, and Parenting (PEP) grant program, which funds many districts’ pregnancy services. “Every year we get calls from parents and students saying their district just tells them, ‘you’ve made your bed and now you lie in it, because we’re not going to help you.'”

Tipped off about the situation in Luling, Texas Civil Rights Project attorney Andrea Gunn agreed to represent the two sisters. Alleging that the case goes further than just the sisters, Gunn also applied for class certification. The district court judge who heard the case in the fall of 2001 initially denied class certification on the grounds that the two young women were no longer students. The judge relented once the women re-enrolled, but the district appealed on the grounds that Gunn had failed to procure additional plaintiffs. Gunn argues that this [failure] is the fault of the district, which she says should be monitoring and keeping records on pregnant students which would make locating them possible.

Contacted by the Observer, the district refused to comment. The response it filed to Contreras’ and Leon’s complaint simply denies all charges. Ironically, the district allowed the sisters to re-enroll, even though Contreras is currently pregnant for the third time. Because the district has already accepted her re-enrollment, a favorable ruling will mean a monetary award–the complaint asks for $5,000–and possibly access to services.

Although Contreras has been attending classes since January, her sister Celia, who is now 20, is unable to return to school and support her three children at the same time. The financial and childcare challenges facing the sisters demonstrate why many districts deem pregnancy programs a necessity. When teens become pregnant, they soon find themselves swamped with doctors’ appointments and the health woes of pregnancy. Once they begin parenting, the cycle of diapers and feedings, of expensive day care and legal battles for child support can be enough to overload even the most motivated students. For this reason the Title IX lawsuit aims to go beyond keeping the district from turning away pregnant students to encouraging them to provide for their special needs.

“Pregnant teens who are able to stay in school need certain services in order to be treated comparably to their peers,” argues Gunn. “We want the school to put in a permanent pregnancy plan that includes things like homebound educational services, parenting classes, and adequate counseling because these girls are at risk of dropping out.”

She adds that the Texas Education Code already requires guidance counselors to help develop special programs to counter the threat of students dropping out, though the code does not specifically mention pregnancy. The State of Texas does provide districts two funding options for pregnancy programs. Districts can apply for state Pregnancy, Education, and Parenting (PEP) grants to design their own programs, which must include child care, transportation, parenting classes, and career counseling. PEP provides up to $100,000 the first year, and half that amount for every subsequent year the program is continued. About 300 of the state’s 1,050 school districts (1,300 if charter schools are included) have received these funds. However, because the money is limited and grant-holders are funded until they discontinue the program, new PEP grants are rare.

Districts can also obtain state pregnancy-related services (PRS) funds, which allot extra money for each pregnant student attending classes. (According to Texas Education Agency records, Luling ISD accepted $3,532 in such funds the 1999-00 school year, when Contreras claims she was pushed out. School officials refused to comment on how the funds were spent.) By accepting these funds for a student, the district agrees to provide her postpartum home-based instruction, and prenatal home instruction if it is medically necessary. Optional services include transportation, child care, counseling, and health services.

In the Luling case, the school’s unwillingness to provide prenatal homebound education is offered as part of the discrimination claim. However, PEP program coordinator Crawford says that such services are only offered for rare cases of medical emergency, not if the student is just feeling ill and doesn’t want to come to school. There is a difference between discrimination, which is illegal, and choosing not to provide services above and beyond those received by other students, she cautions. Still, some districts have realized it’s advantageous to offer help to pregnant students.

“In urban areas, we’re seeing a lot of these programs put into place because we’re so impacted by the problem [of teen pregnancy],” says Nina Jackson, counselor for the Fort Worth Independent School District, which offers one of the most comprehensive programs in the state. “Here in Fort Worth we’re doing everything it takes to keep those kids in school. But in rural areas there’s great inconsistency, and schools [do] push kids out once they get pregnant, even though it’s totally illegal.”

Fort Worth is a model for school districts like Luling, Gunn believes. The district serves around 1,000 identified pregnant or parenting students each year out of a student body of about 80,000. At a special school for such students, as well as in regular classes, five case managers help with everything from intensive counseling to a “baby bucks” program that allows expectant mothers to earn points by, say, attending a prenatal exam. They can then exchange the awards for diapers or baby wipes. But as many districts discover, these efforts have brought accusations that schools are condoning teen pregnancy–complaints that have led some districts to drop their PEP grants or simply avoid applying for them.

“When we first started offering child care in 1984, we had folks say we were actually encouraging teen pregnancy,” Jackson says. “But now we’re fortunate that our community came to realize the link between teen pregnancy, poverty, and dropping out, so they are behind our programs to keep these kids in school.”

However services are implemented, Contreras says she would welcome anything that would make it easier for her to finish the nearly three years of coursework that stands between her and a diploma. But a victory could also send a strong warning to other schools, and help break the link between teen pregnancy and the drop-out rates that impoverish so many Texas communities. n

Rachel Proctor is a graduate student in the joint program in Middle Eastern Studies and Radio-TV-Film at UT-Austin.