Legal Corner Q&A: The Rights of a Pregnant Student, a Personal Story

[Editor's note:  Today, we are pleased to re-post a poignant piece, recently published on The Feminist Breeder, as a part of our Legal Corner Q&A series.  Thank you, Gina, for sharing your story with us, and with all women!]ina-profile-May2011-small

When I found myself pregnant in August of 2010 - eight months after we began trying for our third baby it only took a quick calculation to realize the baby was due right smack in the middle of my Spring semester of school. As I'm nearing the end of my combined B.A. and Paralegal Certificate program, every single class counts, and there's no time to postpone any courses if I want to begin law school, as planned, in the fall of 2012. This meant that I''d have to find a way to keep up my full-time course load and have my baby at the same time. I knew it wouldn't be easy, but Im good at juggling the seemingly impossible. Thats how I've come this far with a family, many jobs, and a near-perfect academic record.

I attend a major Chicago university that prides itself on diversity, community service, and exceptional academic programs. My particular program is geared for adult, busy students seeking a first or second degree. The classes are accelerated and concentrated, running for four hours on one night of each week for eight weeks. There are two sessions per semester, which allows adult students to take a full 12-hour semester by only taking two classes at a time. However, since the classes are four hours a week, missing one class is like missing two weeks in a regular program. Missing even one class in a session isn't something a student wants to do, yet still, the professors understand that sometimes absences are unavoidable. In my three years in this program, I've never seen or heard of any professor punishing a student for missing a class, especially for an extenuating circumstance such as illness, family emergency, or even a work emergency. Our professors know that we're adults who take the program very seriously, while also trying to balance adult responsibilities with our academics.

Three years ago, I had to pump breastmilk for my younger son in the middle of every single class for a whole year, and I never had a professor who was anything less than understanding and accommodating. Many were even openly proud of my effort to remain a committed student and a committed mother at the same time.

For this reason, I fully trusted that my pregnancy and impending birth would be respected by whichever professors I ended up with in the second session of the Spring 2011 semester. I felt that my outstanding academic record would illustrate what a committed student I am, and that the professors and administration would not only be understanding, but also accommodating, when I needed to take a week or two off to have my baby.

At 40 weeks pregnant, I discovered I was wrong. At 36 weeks pregnant, the second session of the Spring semester began. I was enrolled in two courses, both required to complete my degree program. On the very first night of Class X, I approached Professor X, and pointed out that we needed to have a discussion about the giant belly in the room. I told her when I was due, and that I planned to only take one week of classes off to have my baby IF the delivery was uncomplicated, but possibly more if I needed extra time to heal, or if the baby wasn't well. I also asked her permission to bring the baby to class with me so that I could nurse on demand, which she agreed to. The professor seemed completely accepting of the fact that I;d have to take time out of class to have a baby, which, given all of my other experiences with my universitys faculty, I expected. She even offered to let me take an Incomplete if I needed, but I explained to her that I did not want to drag the class out any longer, which is why I wanted to come straight back with the baby, buckle down, and wrap up the class with my usual A.

Everything was fine until the fourth week of class. I was 40 weeks pregnant, and my midwife stripped my membranes to assist the prodromal labor I had been having for weeks. I left the appointment having contractions and lots of bloody show, feeling like labor was imminent. I also had a ridiculous head cold that was making me all sorts of miserable. Still, I knew I had a midterm exam in Class X that night, so I dragged myself - headcold, contractions, bleeding and all -to sit in class and take my exam. After I finished the exam, I decided that I needed to get myself home before I ended up starting labor in the middle of class.

A few days later, still pregnant, I checked Blackboard to see my grade from the exam, and I noticed that the professor had given me only 5 out of 25 points for "Attendance & Participation" on the day I left class early.I wrote to her immediately and asked why I had been docked 20 points, and she explained that I couldn't earn those points unless I was sitting in class. I wrote back and asked her if she planned on docking me the full 25 points for each class I missed for the birth, and she said that Yes, she was planning to dock me while I had my baby. A little quick math told me that there was no chance of me earning an A, B, or even C in that class if she planned on withholding points while I was out for the birth. She told me that the university handbook allowed her to make any attendance policy she wanted, and there were NO exceptions to it.

I quickly called my advisor and asked him what I could do, and he said "Well, she can set any attendance policy she wants, and its not fair to everyone else if you get points when youre not there." I explained to him that I could end up failing the course if I missed a few classes for the birth, so he offered to let me "back withdraw" from the course, meaning that I could drop out without it appearing anywhere on my transcript. I thought that was a horrible option, I had already completed half of the coursework, and all my work would be going to waste. Plus, I desperately needed that course to stay on track for graduation. Taking it all over meant not graduating on time. However, it seemed like my only option. Either risk failing the course while Im giving birth, or withdraw. I emailed the professor, copied in administration, and regrettably withdrew from the course.

Then I went on Facebook. I posted an update angrily complaining about being forced to back withdraw from this class simply because I was having a baby while suffering the untimely misfortune of being enrolled in a course taught by uncompromising professor. Several people had stories of similar things happening to them, and then, one commentator completely changed the game for me.This particular commentator, named Melanie Ross Levin, works for the National Womens Law Center in Washington. Melanie told me that, according to Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, my professor was required by law to give me time off to have my baby, and was required to give me the same chance to earn my A as any other student in the class. This law, enacted way back in 1973, specifically prevents the same type of forced withdrawal that I was experiencing. At first, I really didn't believe Melanie, so she told me to call the NWLC and talk directly to one of their lawyers, which I did. The amazing lawyer on the other end of the line completely had my back, and explained all my rights to me. She offered to help me in any way she could, and displayed true compassion when helping me navigate this stressful situation I found myself in ON MY DUE DATE.

But why hadn't I heard of this? Why hadnt my professor? Why hadn't my advisor? Why hadn't the school administration? Youd think if this was a law that I could use, somebody on my campus would know something about it.

Well, at least one person on my campus had definitely heard of Title IX. In fact, every single school receiving federal funding (read: basically ALL of them) are required by this law to have a Title IX advisor somewhere on campus - thats a whole person whose job it is to know this law, and what it does for their students. I called around and found that the Title IX advisor at my school was the VP of Human Resources (makes sense) and this person was able to mediate with the administrators in my program to help resolve my situation. When I first mentioned the possibility of Title IX discrimination to my professor and administrators, my professor responded saying that shed only give me the opportunity to complete 25 points of "extra credit," to try to make up for my absence, and it had to be complete within 14 days of the last class in the course. However, her "compromise" wasn't nearly enough to make up for what I could miss out on, and she treated me like she was just doing me a favor. But when the Title IX advisor got in touch with my schools Provost, together, they must have realized that the professor was treading dangerous, discriminatory ground, and they announced to me that they were coming up with an appropriate solution. They explained that, by law, I was entitled to the same consideration as any student experiencing a medical condition or emergency. This meant that I must be given the opportunity to earn all the points available in the class, even the Attendance & Participation points, even if I couldn't physically be sitting in class with the other students.When the dust settled, the administration outlined a plan that allowed me to do written work to make up for any absences, and gave me a full six weeks after the last class to submit all of my work.

And after all of that? I returned to that class just SIX days postpartum, with my newborn baby strapped to my chest, and finished out the semester alongside my classmates. I decided I'd rather just go to class than do the extra written work that was piling up from missing class. It was honestly just easier to sit there nursing my baby and participating in class discussion than it was to try to write pages upon pages of papers with her at home. And for the record, my fellow students (mostly mothers) were outraged at what I had been put through, and felt I should have been allowed to simply miss the class during the birth without being forced to do makeup work. Contrary to my advisors statement, my fellow students weren't worried about what was "fair" to them - they just wanted me to have my baby without being stressed out.

Either way, six weeks after the class was over, all of my coursework was turned in, and I received my grade. An A-. Inside just a few short weeks, I had an A- and a baby. I'll take that.  Not for nothing, I also earned a perfect A in my other class, the class with the professor who never once batted an eye at me missing class to have my baby, and who didn't make me do even once ounce of extra work to make up for it.  The moral of this story is this: Pregnant students have rights. It is your right to stay in school. It is your right to be treated fairly and equitably by the faculty and administration. It is your right to earn the same points available to any other non-pregnant student. It is your right to have a baby, and a career. Forty years ago, women worked very hard to get these protections written into federal law, so know they are there, and spread the word.

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