COLUMBUS, Ga. -- Muscogee County school officials recently avoided a legal battle when they allowed a pregnant student to return to her high school rather than attend a Columbus teen parenting center.
The girl's family had filed a sex discrimination complaint to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, but the school board granted an exception and let her return to Hardaway High School if her family agreed not to sue.
But some legal experts say the school district remains vulnerable to lawsuits because its two-year-old policy of assigning all pregnant students to the Teen Age Parenting center violates federal law.
Jocelyn Samuels, vice president for education and employment at the National Women's Law Center in Washington, D.C., cites Title IX, which says schools receiving federal funds shall not discriminate on the basis of sex.
Department of Education rules also specifically ban discrimination based on "a student's actual or potential parental, family, or marital status." The rules allow school districts to offer programs to pregnant students on a voluntary basis.
A school district found to violate Title IX could lose federal funds. Muscogee received $1.8 million in federal funds this school year, according to district figures.
"If in fact it is an option for them and they can still enroll in their existing school, then the school board ought to be letting them know that. But if that option is not available, then I'd say it's hard for me to understand how they can square that with the language of the regulations," Samuels said.
But school board attorney Jim Humes argues that its interpretation of the law allows for a separate-but-equal program which doesn't exclude the girls from any of the benefits of a regular school.
"I think the key really is exclusion, and that's just not what's practiced here," he said.
Humes added that girls attend classes at the teen parenting center, but the school district can make arrangements to provide the same lessons being taught at a girl's regular school or take her back to that school for extracurricular activities.
Most school districts faced with similar lawsuits have ended up changing their policies.
That was the case in St. Louis, which required pregnant middle school students to attend a separate school until the school district received a complaint in 1993. The district's attorneys advised officials to change the policy because it violated Title IX.
Those same regulations were cited in 1998 by a federal district judge in Kentucky when he granted an injunction allowing pregnant girls to gain membership in the National Honor Society.