Autumn R. Green, PhD
Many of us have heard and celebrated the story of Nayzia Thomas, a Johnson County Community College student, from Kansas City, whose story went viral, after she posted a photo of herself completing her psychology final exam while in labor.
The first thing I would like to say to Nayzia is:
“You Go Girl!. You are a badass amazing woman, and props to you for pulling off what you did!”
The second thing I want to tell you, and that I think every other higher education administrator, faculty, staff and student should know is: “You didn’t have to do that.”
You see, there is this law called Title IX (Title Nine). Okay, it’s actually called Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, but that’s a mouthful to say, so most people just know it as Title IX. Title IX is also called the Patsy Takemoto Mink Equality in Education Act, which matters because Patsy Mink was an incredible congressperson and an early champion for women, families, and student parents. In fact, there is a scholarship program for low-income mothers through the Patsy T. Mink Foundation, and she is all together an amazing person to learn about. But I’m getting off topic.
So, the text of Title IX is very brief. It simply reads:
No person, in the United States, shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.
To break this down, let’s start at the end. Any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. What does that mean? Let’s just say, that this is meant in the broadest possible sense. If your college or university awards federal student financial aid, they are bound to Title IX. If your high school receives even $1 of federal funding, they are bound to Title IX. If a faculty member in the chemistry department at your university receives a federal research grant, your institution is bound to uphold Title IX. Any educational program, that receives even $1 of federal funding, from any source, is bound to uphold Title IX.
The next part is also very clear, but also nuanced in the way that it has been interpreted. At the most basic level, any educational program can not exclude nor discriminate against anyone on the basis of their sex. At the time Title IX was passed, there were admissions quotas that all but barred women from access to advanced degree programs. Title IX opened admissions, gave women equal access to collegiate athletics, extended to protect transgendered students from discrimination, mandated that colleges and universities address campus sexual assault, and also included special protections for pregnant and parenting students.
Unfortunately, even despite the U.S. Department of Education issuing a Dear Colleague letter which was mailed with an enclosed booklet entitled, Supporting the Academic Success of Pregnant and Parenting Students Under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, to every institution of higher education (as well as middle and high schools) in the United States in 2013, many higher education administrators, faculty, staff, and students, remain unaware of these rights and protections.
So, let’s start with the basics. If you have a kid, your professor can’t make a rude remark about your parenting status, or allow your classmates to do so either. If someone makes a rude comment about your parenting status in the dining hall, tells you that you don’t belong or are unwelcome on campus, or makes a sexualized gesture or comment referring to your parenting status, your college or university should respond to these comments as a form of hate-speech and potentially, sexual harassment. Rude comments and bullying based on a students’ parenting status are a violation of Title IX.
However, this does not mean that the professor has to excuse absences because your kid is sick, it’s a public school in-service day, or had a melt down tantrum the morning before a big exam. Hopefully your professor will be understanding and supportive in these moments, but not all professors are, and they are not required to excuse absences caused by parenting related issues. Your professor also doesn’t have to allow you to bring your kid to class. There are a lot of great professors who have been supportive to student parents, welcoming their children to occasionally or regularly attend class with their parents, but again, unless your school has an explicit policy in place, bringing kids into the classroom remains up to the discretion of the professor or instructor.
However, Title IX does protect from exclusion based on parenting status. This means that you can’t be told that you can’t try out for the cheerleading squad because you have a kid, or be denied invitation to pledge for a sorority based on your parenting status either. These actions would reflect “exclusion from participation in any education program or activity,” which is explicitly disallowed under Title IX. Even if the activities are extra-curricular, you still cannot be excluded based on your parenting status. This also applies, by the way, to pregnancy: as long as your physician has medically cleared you to participate, you cannot be excluded from any activity (even sports) because of pregnancy. Again, this does not require that the college or university facilitate a student parent to participate, for example by offering childcare or family housing accommodations, which may exclude student parents by lack of resources to enable their participation, but this is not considered exclusion under current interpretation.
Tied into the rules about exclusion, parenting students also cannot be forced to participate in a specialized program for student parents. A lot of colleges and universities offer these kinds of programs, but you can’t be required to participate in these programs by your college or university. You must be allowed to participate in any programs or curricula available to non-parenting students.
Now back to Nayzia. Title IX also includes protections around pregnancy. See, generally speaking, male students don’t get pregnant. Therefore, pregnancy is considered by the U.S. Department of Education to be protected under Title IX. As a result, there are special rules that apply to pregnant students whether they are in high school, college, or even a postdoctoral program.
First, as a pregnant student, your college or university (or high school) must provide you with the same accommodations as are provided to other students with temporary disabilities. University of California at Berkeley, a large urban campus, offers golf carts, for example, to shuttle pregnant and injured students between classes. You must also be provided with a large enough desk that your pregnant body fits comfortably and without restriction, or be offered a suitable alternate to a desk, such as a table and chair.
Second, and this is the important part for Nayzia to know, Title IX requires that pregnant students must be allowed to miss class and assignments, without penalty, for absences related to pregnancy, labor, postpartum respite, and related conditions. Yup. Nayzia didn’t need to finish her final exam in labor, because federal law requires that her professor give her an extension and that they may not assign a grading penalty of any kind.
This can be handled on a case-by- case basis with regards to creating a plan to help the student make up any absences or late assignments. Even if you do it off schedule, or are granted an extension or incomplete, Title IX doesn’t protect you from doing the work. But, that final exam can be done after you are released to return to school by your doctor, it doesn’t need to be your focus between contractions.
You also cannot be prevented from progressing in your program according to your educational plan. So even if you have an incomplete, it shouldn’t prevent you from registering for your courses for the next term. Again, this is not to say that a pregnant student can’t make it her prerogative to finish a final exam in labor. I can totally see the desire to just get it over and done with. I can envision the feeling of triumph in hitting the submit button. Like I said, you are amazing Nayzia. But we need not all be super heroic to be awesome student parents. It’s also okay to just be in labor, forget the final exam for now, and take an extension or incomplete. In fact, as I said, it’s your right to do so, under federal law.
Just one more thing that I think it is helpful to make crystal clear: every college or university employee and student is bound to uphold Title IX. Let’s say your physiology professor does not excuse absences or accept late assignments for any reason. I mean they are strict! They won’t even make exceptions with a doctor’s note saying that you were unconscious in the hospital. Zero excused absences and zero grades for any and all late assignments. Period. Well, your incredibly strict physiology professor still must excuse absences and accept late assignments if the absences and missed assignments are related to a medically documented pregnancy-related bed rest, labor, delivery, or postpardum recovery period. In this case, federal law trumps the policies and rules of any specific professor.
However, many college and university faculty and staff don’t know about Title IX protections for pregnant and parenting students. Unfortunately, we still hear too many stories of pregnant and parenting students that don’t know their own rights, and experience situations that very likely constitute Title IX rights violations. This is, I believe, primarily because faculty and staff don’t realize that these special rules and protections exist, nor that they are responsible (and often legally liable) for upholding them.
Students who have experienced discrimination or exclusion on campus based on their parenting status, or students who are struggling to negotiate pregnancy related extensions and excused absences with their professors, have options within their college or university. Every college or university is required to have a Title IX Coordinator. This person is responsible for ensuring compliance with Title IX and for receiving Title IX complaints from members of the college community. If you don’t know who the Title IX Coordinator is, you can ask. Start with the Dean or Department Chair. You can email them or stop by their office. They should be able to receive your complaint, and also to give you the contact info for the Title IX Coordinator. The Title IX Coordinator must send you information about how to file a formal grievance or complaint and often can fix the situation internally with a few emails.
If you don’t feel satisfied with how your complaint is addressed, you can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights or contact an advocacy group such as the National Women’s Law Center for further legal advice and guidance.
When we hear stories about super awesome student parents like Nayzia, it is natural to react by celebrating the determination and dedication she showed by completing her final exam in labor, but it is just as important for all of us to know and remember that she didn’t have to do that.