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08.08.12

Louisiana Charter School Mandates Pregnancy Tests For ‘Suspect’ Students

After six years, New Delhi Charter School’s unique policy booting pregnant students off campus triggers an uproar. Allison Yarrow reports.

Home to less than three thousand people, and the boyhood stomping grounds of country music star Tim McGraw, Delhi, La., shot to national attention this week when it came out that a local charter school has for the past six years required any girl “an administrator or a teacher suspects” is pregnant “to take a pregnancy test … and to refer the suspect student to a physician of the school’s choice.”

Any girl who is pregnant, or who refuses to submit to the test, is barred from campus, according to the charter’s student pregnancy policy—which twice refers to the school’s “high standards” that students are required to meet, and says its “curriculum will maintain an environment in which all students will learn and exhibit acceptable character traits that govern language, gestures, physical actions and written words.” The policy makes no mention of male students.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately operated schools that are allowed to function outside of the rules governing traditional public schools, but must live up to results laid out in each school’s charter. Delhi Charter School (the name is pronounced del-HIGH) opened in 2001 and is attended by around 600 students. The town itself is about 57 percent black, according to the most recent census data, while just 23 percent of the students in the school are black, according to the Associated Press.

Marjorie Esman, Executive Director of the Louisiana branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, calls Delhi’s rule the “how to get the girl you don’t like kicked out of school policy,” suggesting high-school students could abuse a rule rooted in suspicion rather than fact, employing it to humiliate female peers. She said she was not aware of any other public or publicly funded school with a similar rule. The school has yet to respond to the group’s letter.

Seventy percent of school-age girls who give birth leave school, according to the ACLU, which issued a formal complaint to the school Monday contending the policy violates the 14th Amendment’s right to due process and Title IX, the landmark 1972 ruling prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex to any education program receiving federal monies.

Delhi Charter general manager, Mike Wilson, who answered a call to the school’s general number, said he wasn’t authorized to talk about the policy or whether the school intended to maintain it. He confirmed it was instituted in 2006, five years after the charter first opened. He couldn’t say how many girls had been coerced to take pregnancy tests or dismissed for being pregnant, or what happens to girls who refuse the test.

Other Delhi Charter School administrators, as well as their attorney, David Hammett, did not return calls for comment.

Esman says an anonymous community member alerted the ACLU about the school’s policy, which she says “punishes any girl whether she’s pregnant or not.”  And, she argues, the policy creates a perverse incentive for students to have an abortion.

“If you have an abortion, you get to come right back to school. If you choose to have your child you get kicked out.”

“If you have an abortion, you get to come right back to school. If you choose to have your child you get kicked out. It doesn't do anything for boys who are parents.”

Esman and ACLU’s national office hope the school will suspend the rule immediately—the new school year starts in a matter of weeks—and revisit it when its board meets next to draft something “more legally sound.” A legal fellow in the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, Tiseme Zegeye, calls the rule among the most outdated and egregious she has seen, stereotyping and stigmatizing students illegally. She says the ACLU has been “unable to find information that students have challenged this in any way” in the six years the policy has been in effect.

Zegeye said she knew of no other public schools with the same policy.

A former teen mom has stepped up to challenge the school’s rule. Natasha Vianna got pregnant at 17, and says the staff at her private Catholic school in Cambridge, Mass. made her feel so ostracized and unsafe that she transferred to a public school in nearby Somerville. After overcoming her own shame about being a teen parent, Vianna began blogging about it at a site dedicated to the topic, thepushback.org. Reading about Delhi Charter moved the 24-year-old to post a petition to Change.org Tuesday, calling on the school to throw out the rule. In less than 24 hours, nearly 70,000 people have signed it.

Vianna said she is encouraged by the support, but afraid that even if the school does toss its policy as the outcry builds, its attitude about pregnant girls won’t necessarily change.

“They can get rid of the policy,” she said, “that doesn't mean they’re going to treat teen parents the way they should be treated.”