Female students say law school treated them unfairly during pregnancy
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Female students say law school treated them unfairly during pregnancy

Several female students, past and present at Belmont’s law school, say the school’s attendance policy discriminates against pregnant women, disallowing them additional absences for hospitalization or giving birth.

The Vision interviewed four women who discussed the difficulties they faced in the law school trying to receive support from the administration during pregnancy.

Juliana Lamar: A Belmont law graduate, said she felt pressured to return to classes after an emergency cesarean section before she could drive or carry her textbooks out of fear of failing.

Cecilia Young: A third-year law student, said she did not receive additional absences despite being hospitalized after giving birth. She was diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening condition.

Kendall Ponchillia: A third-year law student, who is currently experiencing a high-risk pregnancy, said she was told to schedule medical appointments outside of class time to avoid using up absences despite a note from her doctor. She was also not given spring schedule information and early exams.

Rachel Clifton: A law school graduate said she was initially denied assistance of any kind, including absences for time spent hospitalized, by Belmont’s former Title IX director. She was eventually allowed one accommodation, in that she’d be able to pump breastmilk during exams after two hours had passed, which was granted by law school Associate Dean for Student Services Andy Matthews.

All four women took their cases either to the law school’s administration or the university’s former Title IX coordinator, and all but one were denied any disability accommodations, despite a doctor’s note, written requests and, in some cases, life-threatening conditions, they said.

Provost Thomas Burns said that what the women were actually requesting were exceptions to the attendance policy, and not medical accommodations. The attendance policy, both he and law school Dean Alberto Gonzales said, would not change.

Belmont law’s attendance policy bars students from missing more than 15 percent of classes in a course; any student to exceed that amount will automatically fail the class with a grade of “FN.”

Rather than change the attendance policy, Burns said the school should find ways to assist pregnant students on a case-by-case basis, which can include additional absences. 

“What we need to do is find ways that we can support students and make them successful,” Burns said.

However, the women say that support was not offered to them.

Young said that while the university assured her that it was showing her as much compassion as it could, the attendance policy stood, and no “wiggle room” would be made.

All four women went to the law school’s deans to ask for support in whatever form it could be offered, and all were denied, they said, whether they came in advance of any medical complications or after. 

Lamar said she approached law school Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Ellen Black when she first became pregnant, and asked if she could be afforded any additional absences due to her pregnancy.

“She showed concern as far as being a mother herself and understanding what giving birth would be like and the recovery process with that, and she also discussed issues that could arise that could lead to an emergency C-section,” said Lamar.

“But despite knowing all of that, the law school wasn’t going to give me any additional days. She told me my option was to either stay in classes and try not to go over the allotted time that was given or take a medical leave of absence, which wasn’t an option for me, because I was due at the very end of the semester.”

Now a graduate from Belmont’s College of Law, Lamar returned to classes days after having an emergency cesarean section in the fall of 2018 — before she was even able to carry her textbooks to class.

“My professor was saying that she was just so shocked that I was back so soon,” Lamar said. “When I came back, I couldn’t drive so my family drove me back and forth from Clarksville.”

After having an emergency C-section, Lamar said the main pressure on her was making it back to school without using up her absences and failing, she said. 

“My mind was just on being a good mom taking care of my son and still accomplishing my goal and finishing law school. So I tried to ignore the pain.”

Lamar is not alone in her grievances.

Last year, Young, also a law student, asked for support from the deans of the law school during her pregnancy and was not provided any, she said.

After giving birth, Young was hospitalized with a potentially serious complication.

While hospitalized, Young received an email from the law school explaining that she had used the allotted amount of absences in a course, and that if she missed any more classes, she’d fail. 

She replied to the email explaining her situation and received no response. 

“I was on magnesium through an IV for 24 hours. I couldn’t leave the bed, much less come to class … I was released from the hospital at the middle of the night on Tuesday and was back in class on Wednesday.” 

“Luckily, nothing happened with my baby or major that required me to miss any more classes that semester,” Young said. “But I wasn’t going to get any help if that did happen.”

Sarah Martin, a Belmont law school graduate, went to the law school’s administration last spring on behalf of several female law students with pregnancy-related grievances. Martin said the law school’s actions conflict with the federal regulations prescribed by Title IX and the American Bar Association.

Title IX is a federal civil rights law which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex by schools, and states that pregnant students must be allowed the same accommodations afforded to any student with a temporary disability.

The ABA, which oversees all accredited law schools, stipulates that law schools must foster and maintain equality of all students, regardless of gender or disability.

Martin met with Dean Black and discussed the women’s difficulties receiving pregnancy-related support from the law school, requesting that the school change its attendance policy. 

“It was a very defensive meeting, there was no commitment to do anything,” Martin said. “She was very clear that nothing was going to change about the attendance policy and no accommodations would ever be made.”

Gonzales, the law school’s dean, reached out to Martin via email the week after that meeting, saying that Martin was “correct in assessing that no changes would be made to the attendance policy.” 

That week, the ABA made a regular visit to the law school. During the visit, several students, including Martin, approached ABA representatives and aired their grievances.

The ABA brought those concerns to Belmont in a meeting that Gonzales and university President Bob Fisher attended among others. Following the meeting, the law school altered its language in the attendance policy to further clarify that students were to approach Dean Black for pregnancy-related help.

“I think we’ve taken the appropriate steps to make sure that the student’s health is a priority,” said Gonzales in an interview with the Vision last week. “We try to provide the accommodations they need to be successful as a parent, successful as a law student.”

During that same interview, Black affirmed that the law school is doing all it can.

“I have not had an instance where a student has come to me and asked for assistance and I did not provide it,” said Black, adding that the women should continually follow up with her if their situations require medical accommodations.

Kendall Ponchillia, a third-year law student at Belmont, said she met with Black and Associate Dean for Student Services Andy Matthews as soon as she found out she had a high-risk pregnancy. She requested whatever accommodations they could provide, including spring schedule information and early exams. She also provided a doctor’s note detailing her high-risk pregnancy.

The note was refused, she said.

“They basically told me to schedule my doctor’s appointments on Fridays so I wouldn’t miss class, that there was nothing they can do for me now, and that they could readdress it in the spring.”

Ponchillia’s situation is happening now, less than a year after the law school altered its attendance policy clarifying that pregnant students should talk to Black. Ponchillia approached Black as prescribed, and still received no assistance, she said.

Said Martin: “The way Kendall has been treated makes me think that nothing has changed.”

Gonzales said that the attendance policy, though strict, has never prevented a pregnant student from ultimately finishing law school and has “allowed these women to be successful.”

“It is true that, you know, being present at school makes it much more likely to be successful in law school. It’s different than college, it’s harder than college,” he said. “There’s a reason why for the past few years, we led the state in bar passage rate is because, you know, we make our students work.” 

However, Young, who has already given birth and is still in law school, said the current attendance policy could negatively affect pregnant students going forward.

“We shouldn’t have to schedule our reproduction around when they think it’s convenient.”

Article written by Justin Wagner and Marissa Avnaim.

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