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High School Maternity Leave

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If you can ignore the truly inane comments (with your usual dose of lady-shaming and -blaming), it’s worth checking out this article on the Denver Post’s website, reporting on a request at a Denver high school that maternity leave be granted to students who have just given birth. Current city policy allows schools to deal with students who give birth in any way the school chooses. At root, there is no city policy. Most schools require women to return to classes the day after they are discharged from the hospital or risk accumulating unexcused absences. While some local young women can attend a special high school for pregnant and parenting students, there is a waiting list to get in; many other new mothers are assigned to individualized education programs or drop out altogether.

Luckily, some area school officials are ready and willing to implement changes that will stop a practice that amounts to punishment of pregnant and parenting teenage girls, especially in a city where, according to the Denver Post, “of every 1,000 girls ages 15 to 17, 54.5 will become pregnant in the city, compared with 24.3 throughout Colorado, according to state health statistics.”

So what are some possible alternatives? To me, there seem to be a few obvious answers as well as numerous more that are not so clear. First, it should be against city policy to penalize young women for missing school in the first weeks after they give birth by meting out unexcused absences. Second, schools should help facilitate girls’ returns to school when they are ready by providing on-site subsidized (or free!) child care and clean and safe places to nurse or pump. In order to make sure that parenting teens can return to school without falling behind, schools should facilitate at-home learning for new mothers and tutoring upon their return to school. The bottom line is that school districts, cities, states, and even the federal government need to do everything feasible to ensure that parenting teens do not drop out of school and, indeed, graduate on time and with college prospects.

Of course, there’s also the usual line about preventing teen pregnancy in the first place; contraception should, of course, be made available to every student and — I would argue — free of charge. We should get rid of abstinence-only programs that have been proven time and again to be failures. We need to enable teens to prevent pregnancy, but also facilitate their continued education if they do get pregnant and carry to term.

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