ACLU targets anti-pregnancy rule at charter school

By Janet McConnaughey
Associated Press

The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana is threatening to sue a northeastern Louisiana charter school if it doesn’t change rules that keep pregnant students out of the classroom and require girls under suspicion of being pregnant to be tested.

The four-paragraph “Student Pregnancy Policy” in Delhi Charter School’s policy manual says that if a suspected girl refuses to take a pregnancy test, she can be removed from class or the school.

That violates the U.S. Constitution and federal laws against sexual discrimination, state ACLU executive director Marjorie R. Esman said.

“I haven’t heard of this anywhere else,” Esman said Tuesday. “And I hope there isn’t another school anywhere on the planet that has a policy like this.”

Esman recently emailed the school’s two principals and a board member about the policy. She said attorney W. David Hammett told her the next day that they were reviewing the issue and would get back.

“I take that as a good sign — that they’re taking this seriously,” she said. “And I assume their lawyers will agree with us and see the need to suspend enforcement and change their policy.”

School board member Albert Christman told The News Star in Monroe that the board was unaware of the potential discrimination and was reviewing the rule.

“We’re doing the best we can,” Christman said. “When someone points out a mistake, we fix it.”

Former school principal Steve Gaharan told the newspaper he was always concerned when he had to enforce the policy, which came up about once a year. Gaharan said he was forced to resign earlier this year over an alleged violation that wasn’t explained to him.

“The system used at Delhi Charter School is quite unusual and punishing to the young lady; however the young man can strut along, continue in school and compete in or participate in all extracurricular activities,” he said.

However, according to Gaharan, “the pregnant young lady is not only excluded from all of these activities, but also must be home-schooled instead of having the privilege of attending school.”

The two principals and an attorney representing the school did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.

Delhi Charter had 609 students last year in kindergarten through 12th grade, and, with 67 percent of its students at or above grade level, got a B-minus in its state evaluation.

Only one of the 11 schools run by the Richland Parish School Board got a grade that high; the others were two C’s, a C-minus, a D and six D-minuses.

The three public schools in Delhi all got D or D-minus.

While Louisiana has recently gained attention for a new law allowing state-funded vouchers for students to attend private and religious schools that charge tuition, the Delhi school was created under a previous law.

As a charter school, it cannot charge tuition or be supported by or affiliated with any religion.

About 23 percent of Delhi Charter’s students are minority, nearly 5 percent disabled and 53 percent eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

The pregnancy policy says pregnant students who want to stay in the school must study at home.

“If an administrator or teacher suspects a student is pregnant, a parent conference will be held. The school reserves the right to require any female student to take a pregnancy test to confirm whether or not the suspected student is in fact pregnant,” it states. The school can also choose which doctor the student will see.

Students who refuse to take a pregnancy test must either study at home or find another school.

The requirements are part of “an environment in which all students will learn and exhibit acceptable character traits,” it says.

Title IX, the section of the 1972 federal education law requiring equal opportunities for both sexes in education, mandates that “pregnant students are entitled to an education free from discrimination,” Esman wrote. She said it allows home instruction for pregnant students, but “participation ... must be completely voluntary and comparable to those offered to non-pregnant students.”

It violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause because “boys who are expecting children — or who are suspected of having engaged in sexual activity — are not similarly treated,” she wrote.

Esman said she is appalled by “the idea that you would not only punish a girl who chooses to have a child but punish girls for being girls. A girl you ‘suspect’ of being pregnant could be anybody,” she said.

She didn’t know how long the policy has been in effect. “I know that it has been enforced, but I cannot tell you how many times. There’s probably no way to know that,” she said.