The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


December 19, 2013

Aisha Sultan: Giving birth should never be an unexcused absence

ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Brandi Kostal still had internal stitches a week and a half after giving birth via a complicated caesarean section in March, but she stopped taking her pain medication and dragged herself to her graduate-level classes to become a chiropractor.

If she missed more than 15 percent of her classes, her professors would fail her. They would fail her despite the fact that she says she had stayed in touch with them during her pregnancy and asked how she could make up any missed work following the birth of her daughter. Despite the fact that she emailed the dean of student services from her hospital bed hours before her surgery appealing for help in keeping up her academic record. Despite the fact that her doctor wrote her a letter saying she was a "high risk" patient and would be "incapacitated for recovery" for a little more than a month.

They would fail her -- despite the fact that it would be a violation of federal law.

Her pleas fell on deaf ears at Logan University, where Dean of Student Services James Paine responded to her email with: "Unfortunately, child birth is not currently listed as an event for which attendance is excused."

How baffling that an institution charged with creating future health care professionals would treat its own students' health issues with such disregard. It's difficult to figure out if the professors, deans and legal counsel involved in this case at Logan simply had a hard time understanding the laws governing them, or if they truly believe their students should attend class even if their water breaks and contractions begin.

"The law is really clear," Lara Kaufmann, senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center, said. "Women should not have to choose between getting an education and having a baby."

Kostal contacted the NWLC, which filed a discrimination complaint informing the school that it was violating Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in schools. Logan settled the case earlier this week by removing two failing grades from Kostal's transcript, allowing her to make up the missed work and reimbursing her for tuition she had paid while pregnant and recovering. It also promised to train its faculty about Title IX obligations.

Kaufmann said the agency has gotten an increasing number of similar complaints in the past five or six years, handling calls from students on a weekly basis who are penalized for getting pregnant and having a baby. In May, the advocacy group settled a similar case against the City University of New York on behalf of a pregnant student who had been told that if she went into labor and missed her finals, there would be no opportunity for her to make them up. She was advised to drop her classes.

Kostal says she was stunned when she received the email from the dean telling her she was out of luck.

"I was in unbelievable shock that in this day and age, this could actually occur. I was made to feel like I had done something wrong, and I was having a baby."

The Education Department for the Office of Civil Rights sent colleges a letter in June clarifying that Title IX meant "a school must excuse a student's absence because of pregnancy or childbirth for as long as the student's doctor deems the absences medically necessary." The student must be allowed to return to school at the same academic status as before the medical leave, the letter said.

Really. This had to be spelled out for professionals in higher education. In 2013.

Logan University general counsel Laura McLaughlin did not return calls for comment, but the university released a statement saying: "We are pleased to have resolved the disagreement with this student in a way that we believe will further enhance our policies and opportunities for Logan students. Our new policies and procedures will help us continue to meet evolving federal requirements."

This particular federal requirement hasn't evolved much in 40 years.

However reluctantly, it's good see Logan University finally has.

Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age while trying to keep up with her tech-savvy children. Find her on Twitter: @AishaS.


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