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District Policy and Student Pregnancy
Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.
Saturday September 01, 2012
by: Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.

Section: Inside Insight

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Your school district was challenged by an angry parent who felt her daughter’s school counselor should have informed her when her daughter sought counseling about her pregnancy. In response, the district has issued a new policy saying school counselors must try to get students to inform their parents about their pregnancy, and failing this the school counselors must inform parents. Are there any legal or ethical concerns regarding this policy?

School counselors work with pregnant students to involve their parents but school counselors also cite incidences in which a student has valid reasons or legitimate fears for not involving her parents. A district policy eliminates school counselors’ capacity to help students weigh the facts, grapple with the issues and determine when, how or whether to involve parents. A one-size-fits-all policy reduces the school counselor’s role to a trigger to be pulled regardless of circumstances and is not in keeping with the intent, nature and function of school counseling. Ethical school counseling requires school counselors to avoid quick, easy answers in the form of policies but rather rise to the challenge of supporting students wrestling with issues in context of the students’ personal circumstances, fears, developmental levels and parents’ rights.

The Port Washington School District in New York in 2002 enacted a written policy requiring educators to inform parents of a student’s pregnancy. In 2005, the district’s teachers association failed in court to get an injunction to stop the implementation of the policy (Port Washington Teachers' Association vs. Board of Education of the Port Washington Union Free School District, 2005). It was hoped that the messiness of the Port Washington court case would dissuade other districts from policy making around pregnancy and minors’ confidentiality rights. The courts ruled in favor of the district, but not without serious concerns about how the policy affects federal law. Unfortunately, districts do not seem deterred; just recently I worked with a large district in the throes of establishing a similar policy with respect to blanket parental notification in the case of pregnant students.

On the surface, parental notification policies might appear as a reasonable approach to protecting minors, their parents and unborn children. In practice, however, such policies are too drastic as they completely eliminate the discretion needed for caring educators working on behalf of individual students. Notification policies treat each student the same whether she is a competent, mature 17 year old or a developmentally delayed 14 year old. Port Washington’s misguided policy eliminates the educators’ discretion to do complex work with sexually active students.

Students often accurately predict their parents’ reaction to pregnancy. Parental involvement can be supportive and beneficial or it can be punitive, coercive or abusive. Studies show that minors who choose not to discuss their abortion decision with their parents cite one or more of the following reasons for not confiding: fear of rejection, fear of disappointing their parents, fear of violence at home, fear of being forced to leave home, wanting to spare their parents from the problem, wanting to handle it on their own and/or fear that their parents will force them to have an abortion. In cases where such fears are legitimate, parental notification policies stand to cause physical and psychological harm to girls who are already highly vulnerable.

A districtwide parental notification policy is likely meant to protect the district from angry parents should they threaten to flex their legal muscles when not informed about their child’s pregnancy. Other proponents of such a policy hold the view that parental notification requirements will result in parents persuading their child to carry their baby to term when studies show the opposite appears to be true. One-fifth of minors whose pregnancy was revealed by a third party were forced by their parents to have an abortion, and more than 90 percent of the parents expressed the stance that an abortion is in their minor child’s best interest. Minors whose pregnancy was revealed by a third party were more likely to report physical violence between them and their parents or concerns that there might be such violence.
Whatever the motivation for such policies, legal opponents view them as a violation of students’ federal and state rights and explain that they actually work against the public interest by deterring students from using school-based medical and mental health care providers for confidential counseling and information, according to a 2005 article in the Brooklyn Law Review. When school policies protect students’ confidentiality, they encourage students to voluntarily involve surrogate parents or trusted adults in the school in their abortion decision. Blanket notification policies, however, scare students away from taking advantage of school-based resources.

In the Port Washington case, the court examined whether the policy was constitutional in light of the fact that in New York a minor has a right to an abortion without parental involvement. The court drew a distinction “between notification of pregnancy and consent or notification for abortion.” It reasoned such parental notification “does not intrude on the student's right to ultimately seek an abortion or to carry her fetus to term.” With consideration of judicial bypass, the argument becomes even stronger. Judicial bypass is a process in which minors can get state approval to have an abortion without parental involvement in states requiring parental involvement. School notification policies renders the intent of judicial bypass ineffective as it takes away the minor’s option to keep parents from knowing about her pregnancy. All states that have parental consent or parental notification requirements for abortions must allow for a minor to have access to judicial bypass, following the 1979 Supreme Court case Bellotti vs. Baird. By requiring parental notification, districts are taking away minors’ rights granted by the Supreme Court to go before a neutral, detached decision-maker to seek an abortion free from any sort of parental involvement.

What does Belotti vs. Baird have to do with our daily lives as school counselors? It strengthens school counselors’ argument that not only do we have an ethical imperative to negotiate the difficult task of supporting pregnant students but also the legal imperative to support their constitutionally protected rights. It would hold to reason that policies involving minors’ reproductive health are made in consultation with the legal arm of the district. Ethical codes carry clout in court, and school district attorneys understand this; however the school district attorneys are far more concerned with ensuring district policies safeguard students’ constitutionally protected rights. When school counselors need to advocate against district policies requiring an automatic parental notification, they should speak not only in terms of their ethical imperative but also of the constitutionality of parental notification. Ask the district to carefully weigh the possibility that a challenge to the policy might cause the next big court case.

Professional school counselors seek the flexibility within our difficult role to do what we always have done: encourage, support and cajole a student to involve her parents but with the freedom to use our judgment when it is time to let a mature minor make her own decisions about involving her parents. School counselors function best when given the freedom to exercise their responsibility to negotiate the rights and privileges of students and parents with regard to disclosing information to parents regarding pregnancy. Difficult counseling decisions involving value-laden issues must always be made against the backdrop of parental rights and the trusting relationship and not quick and easy policies eliminating all judgment.

It would be far easier for school counselors to have a policy, but we must resist this as it takes away the work of helping a student move toward independence and autonomy by wrestling with the nuances of what is best for each student on each day given the context of that student’s life. We chose the profession of school counseling not because it was easy but because it makes a difference in children’s lives – even those children carrying children.

Carolyn Stone, Ed.D., professor, University of North Florida, is chair of ASCA’s Ethics Committee. She can be reached at cstone@unf.edu. Contact the author for references to this article. The author would like to thank Sarah Beth Glicksteen for her research help with this article. To submit your questions for a future column, e-mail them to ethics@schoolcounselor.org.