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NWLC Files Title IX Complaint Against CUNY For Discriminating Against A Pregnant Student

City University of New York (CUNY) violates the law by failing to allow pregnancy-related absences

January 17, 2013

The National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) today filed an administrative complaint against City University of New York (CUNY) for violating Title IX—the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education—for permitting each classroom instructor to determine on a case-by-case basis whether to excuse absences related to pregnancy and allow for make-up work and for retaliating against a student who challenged the policy.  Title IX prohibits schools from penalizing pregnant students for medically necessary absences.

The complaint, filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, documents the discrimination experienced last year by Stephanie Stewart, a 27-year-old student at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), which is part of the CUNY system of two dozen college and schools attended by nearly a half million students.  Stewart, an honors student and recipient of an academic scholarship, was told by a professor that she would not be allowed to make up tests or assignments resulting from any pregnancy-related absences, including labor and delivery.  When Stewart went to the dean and other administrators to reverse the decision, they told her that professors have the right to set their own rules about absences and make-up work.  They declined to intervene on Stewart’s behalf and recommended that she drop the class since she was expecting to deliver her baby before the end of the term. 

The NWLC complaint also details the retaliation Stewart experienced after challenging the policy, including receiving an academic warning from the professor in question immediately after she filed her complaint; she was later cleared of the academic warning.

“I was due before the end of the semester so it was inevitable that I’d miss some classes and assignments,” said Stewart. “I simply wanted the chance to make up missed assignments and tests.  I’d never heard of Title IX at that point, but I knew that my professor and the school were jeopardizing my college career to follow a policy that I later discovered was illegal.” 

Public community colleges play a critical role in educating a high percentage of non-traditional students, including pregnant students and those who are parents.  But the national dropout rates among pregnant and parenting students in community colleges are stark:  61 percent of women who have children after enrolling in community college do not graduate.  This number is 65 percent higher than for women who do not have children while in college.  

“Community colleges are on the frontlines of educating pregnant and parenting students who face daunting hurdles to succeed in college,” said NWLC Co-President Marcia D. Greenberger. “Students who are pregnant or parents must meet academic workloads, the rigorous demands of caring for children and the financial pressures of student loans, housing and child care.”

“It’s critical that schools meet their obligations under Title IX and not create barriers that prevent students from getting the education they need to position themselves in our competitive economy,” said Fatima Goss Graves, NWLC’s Vice-President of Education and Employment.

Last February, Stewart asked the professor if she could make up tests or assignments if she were to go into labor and be admitted to the hospital.  The professor of the course, Roles of Women, told her that she would not be allowed to make up tests or assignments and under her class policy would only be allowed to miss one test all semester.  School administrators told Stewart that professors were entitled to set their own attendance policies and refused to recognize the discrimination caused by applying the policy to pregnancy-related absences.  After repeated suggestions from the professor and administrators to drop the course, Stewart withdrew from the class right away, and because this disqualified her for the scholarship, she withdrew from the scholarship program.  She delivered her baby on May 4 and returned to school at the start of the fall 2012 semester.  

Stewart plans to make up the credits from the class during the semester that begins later this month. She intends to attain her Associates degree at the end of the semester and then transfer to a four-year university.  

The complaint requests that the New York Office of Civil Rights take all necessary steps to remedy any unlawful conduct identified in its investigation, monitor any resulting agreements with BMCC to ensure compliance with Title IX, reinstate Stewart’s academic scholarship, and commit to address the needs of its pregnant and parenting students.

Stewart hopes that her Title IX complaint will force the school to comply with the law so that other students don’t have to face the setbacks that she did. “How many other pregnant students on college campuses across the country are being penalized for missing classes?” said Stewart.  “I know what it’s like to bump up against an illegal policy that jeopardizes your chances of making it.  Many pregnant and parenting students are as determined as I am to set a secure path and bright future for their children and themselves, and we all deserve that chance.”

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For more resources on Title IX and how the law protects pregnant and parenting students, visit www.nwlc.org/pregnantandparentingstudents.

NWLC Title IX experts are available for comment.  If you are interested in interviewing student Stephanie Stewart, please contact Maria Patrick at mpatrick@nwlc.org or 202-319-3021.