When a minor becomes pregnant, is it a school's responsibility to notify the parents? Sandra Kopels, a lawyer and social worker who is a professor of social work at Illinois and expert in legal and ethical issues affecting social work clients and practitioners, discusses the implications of teen pregnancy notification policies with News Bureau reporter Phil Ciciora.
What should schools do when a student who is a minor becomes pregnant? Do they have a duty to notify parents?
Just because a student happens to be a minor who attends school in a particular district and then becomes pregnant doesn't establish a duty for the school to notify the parents of her pregnancy. School districts should not overreact when their personnel learn that a minor student is pregnant, nor should they mistakenly believe that they have a duty to notify the parents about student pregnancies.
Problems can arise from the creation of pregnancy notification policies. Although school districts may think their potential liability is minimized by establishing mandatory notification policies, these rules may have the opposite effect. Notification policies may actually open the schools up to increased liability for violations of students' constitutional rights to privacy, their rights to confidentiality, gender discrimination, and other claims.
Even in the unlikely event that a school district employee "caused" a student to become pregnant - for example, the school negligently hired a sexual predator who then impregnated the minor - the school would not have a duty to notify the parents of the pregnancy, especially if the minor objected to the disclosure. The district certainly might be liable for its hiring or supervision practices, but not for its failure to tell the parents of the pregnancy.
In the more likely situation where a student becomes pregnant by her boyfriend, it's hard to see how there would be any liability on the part of the school for failing to notify the parents of the pregnancy.
Why would schools think they have a responsibility to inform parents?
In the law, there's a concept known as the "duty to warn," which arises in a number of different situations where one person is viewed as having the duty to prevent harm from befalling another person.
In therapeutic relationships, the "duty to warn" encompasses dangerous situations that involve physical harm or imminent danger that individuals may inflict upon themselves or another. Typically, at the first session when a social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist or other helping professional meets the client, the professional will say, "If you ever tell me that you're being abused" - if the client is a minor - "or if you ever tell me that you are abusing a child or that you are going to hurt yourself or others, then I have to disclose that information."
In a nutshell, if the client ever says something that the therapist believes is indicative of the client's causing a clear, imminent risk of danger to the client or third party, the therapist has the duty to warn or protect the third party.
Are schools bound by the duty to warn?
Schools, which are not bound by the duty to warn, may take the concept, misapply it to minors' pregnancies and then formulate misguided policies pursuant to a duty that they do not have.
The "duty to warn" is generally misunderstood by mental health practitioners who are subject to it. Clearly, when a minor is pregnant and is at risk of suffering adverse health affects because of her pregnancy, her parents should be told of the pregnancy. In those cases where the minor's health is compromised, her pregnancy could constitute a danger to her physical well being; telling her parents would be consistent with a duty to warn.
Unlike in other states, the Illinois Supreme Court has a very narrow interpretation of the duty to warn and to whom any duty is owed. So it is really hard to see how schools would believe they have the responsibility to notify parents of pregnancy. Absent a threat to a minor's health, schools do not have the responsibility to inform parents of pregnancy, or if the student is HIV-positive.
What ramifications would such a policy have for minors who are pregnant?
Research studies indicate that in the majority of families where teens become pregnant, teens talk to their parents and involve them in decisions about carrying to term or terminating the pregnancy.
In the remaining families, when parents learn of pregnancies, they beat the teens, kick them out of the home, and force them to undergo abortions or have the baby.
For this latter group of teens, policies that mandate parental notification can be dangerous.
What ramifications would such a policy have for school districts?
The policy would give rise to the reality that whoever first learns of the pregnancy would have the burden of disclosing it.
Let's say the policy dictates that all school staff must notify a student's parents within 10 days of staff learning that a student is pregnant. Hypothetically speaking, if the lunchroom attendant overhears a student tell her friend that she is pregnant, the lunchroom attendant would have to disclose that information to the parents.
So, under the school's policy, even though the school employs personnel like school social workers who have education and training in conflict resolution and who can provide counseling and interventions to students and their parents, the delicate task of telling the parents of their child's pregnancy may fall to the lunchroom attendant, who probably does not possess skills in this area.
Additionally, implementing a district policy that requires parental notification of pregnancy could impose liability on a district merely because of the consequences of non-compliance with the policy, rather than because of any duty to notify that exists under the law.