Dania DeLone's oldest child was born in 2004, when she was 15 and a sophomore at Lincoln Southeast High School.
"It was important for me to finish school, yet at the same time I wanted to take care of my new baby girl," DeLone told the Legislature's Education Committee Monday afternoon.
She was ill during her pregnancy, and spent half her time in the nurse's office. She was trying her hardest to get to school every morning, but attendance became an issue. And if she got kicked out, she wondered how she would manage to go to college, have a career, and provide the essentials for her family.
One day her counselor told her she should drop out, she said. That just made her more serious about succeeding, attending all her classes and getting good grades.
"I knew I was too young to become a mother," DeLone said, "but this was my responsibility and I was determined to do everything in my power to graduate high school and go to college so I could make a promising future for my family."
Southeast didn't have a student/child learning center as several Lincoln high schools do now. So DeLone would wake up early to breastfeed at home, and then would struggle to find a place to pump milk during the day and then store it. She frequently ended up in a utility closet or locker room.
Two bills introduced this session by Omaha Sen. Tony Vargas would address the struggles DeLone faced then and other student parents across the state still do.
One bill (LB427) would expand Nebraska's breastfeeding law, that allows women to breastfeed anywhere in public or private that they are allowed to be. It would include students in public, private, denominational and parochial schools. With the bill they would have appropriate, sanitary and private breastfeeding and milk expression, or breast pumping, accommodations.
A fiscal note that accompanied the bill indicated there would be no cost for schools with greater than 50 employees because federal law already requires an accommodation for workers. There could be a one-time increase in expenditures for smaller schools to comply.
It's not always an easy task for schools to find space for this, said Sen. Rick Kolowski, a member of the committee.
"We want to do everything we can to protect this special group to make sure that they get an education and can contribute," Vargas said.
Committee members had questions about whether the bill would force schools to allow students to bring their babies with them. Vargas said Nebraska law already technically allows that.
The second bill (LB428) introduced by Vargas would require school districts to adopt policies to accommodate pregnant and parenting students, including working with students on their absences due to pregnancy and by allowing alternatives to regular classroom attendance with coursework at home, tutors and online courses. The bill would direct schools to help a student parent to find child care.
Danielle Conrad, executive director of ACLU of Nebraska, said although federal and state law protects the rights of students who are pregnant or parenting, the majority of Nebraska’s districts have no policies or procedures to ensure it is happening.
Nebraska’s teen birth rate of 31.1 per 1,000 women ages 15-19 is higher than the national rate of 24.2. And national surveys suggest about one-third of young women who drop out of school do so because they’re pregnant.
A statewide survey by the ACLU of 240 of the state’s 251 school districts found just 16 percent have written policies regarding students’ needs to express milk during the school day. Although many districts had such policies for employees, they did not extend to students.
Lincoln Public Schools' Student-Parent Program, in partnership with the larger community, assists pregnant and/or parenting youth through enhanced educational, health, social services, vocational and parenting opportunities.
Childcare is offered on-site at Bryan Community, Lincoln High, Northeast and North Star high schools.
In Lincoln, the student/child learning centers are funded with federal grants filled in with funding from nonprofits, schools and private contributions, according to Lea Ann Johnson, Community Learning Centers director for Lincoln Public Schools.