- Associated Press - Monday, January 30, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Dania DeLone had her first daughter at age 15 after a difficult pregnancy that forced her to spend most of her school days sick in the nurse’s office.

It didn’t get easier after her daughter was born: The new mom worried daily about how to pump breast milk during school hours and usually was shunted to a utility closet or locker room during her lunch break.

“I was pulled into the counselor’s office one day and told to drop out,” DeLone told lawmakers Monday as she spoke at a committee hearing in favor of a pair of bills aimed at helping teen moms graduate from High school. “I was told to get my GED because coming to a real school would be too hard.’”

One bill would expand employee breast-feeding protections to students and require schools to provide spaces for students to express and store milk. The other would require school districts to adopt written policies accommodating pregnant and parenting students. Schools would have to allow greater leniency for absences due to pregnancy and alternative ways to complete coursework. They also would have to help student parents find child care, either through an in-school facility or by partnering with local child care providers.

The two bills, sponsored by state Sen. Anthony Vargas of Omaha, shouldn’t cost the state any additional money, according to the state Department of Education.

“Student mothers are mothers,” Vargas said. “We’re just clarifying that and extending that to make sure they have the same rights.”

Although DeLone’s case demonstrates how difficult it can be for pregnant teens and young mothers to stay in school, she didn’t drop out. She made her school’s honor roll, graduated in 2006 and now works as a breast-feeding community educator who helps teen moms in Lincoln.

Vargas introduced the bills in response to a December study from the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska, which found 70 percent of mothers who have children while in high school end up leaving school. The same study found just 17 percent of schools had policies for student parents.

The bills’ prospects of passing were unclear during Monday’s committee hearing.

Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, the committee’s chairman, questioned whether schools needed set policies for student pregnancies.

“I’ve lived in rural Nebraska all my life, and I’ve never seen a school that has a policy,” he said. “They have this happen and they just handle it because we’re a community.”

Ensuring student parents have the ability to breast-feed and access to quality child care helps teens and their children, said Maddie Fennell, executive director of the Nebraska State Education Association.

“Being a teen parent is tough,” she said. “I have watched many try to do the best for their children while having to let go of their own childhood.”

Teen pregnancies have declined nationally for the past 25 years, but Nebraska’s birth rate of 31.1 per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19 is still higher than the national rate of 24.2.

Pregnancy is included in Title IX, the federal gender equity in education law that also requires public schools to provide women’s sports and universities to investigate allegations of sexual violence.

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Follow Julia Shumway on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JMShumway

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