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A Florida State College at Jacksonville sophomore who was turned away from an exam because she took her baby along may have recourse against the institution, after the U.S. Education Department warned colleges this week that they have legal responsibilities to support pregnant and parenting students.

Or, she may not.

The “Dear Colleague” letter and accompanying pamphlet of guidance and best practices that the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights released doesn’t address that student’s particular issue, but some say there’s room for interpretation.

The student, Rebecca Mabrey, says her husband wasn’t free to watch their son during her exam. Since the test was being proctored right around naptime, Mabrey figured he’d just sleep through the exam, wake up after and be ready for breastfeeding.

What Mabrey apparently didn’t know is that the college’s “Children on Campus” policy, which is published in the student handbook, bars children under 16 from “instructional areas.” Mabrey was told to leave and says she hasn’t been allowed to make up the exam.

“Make an accommodation for nursing mothers,” Mabrey told local television station WTLV. “They allow students that have other learning disabilities to go into separate rooms where they’re by themselves, but not so much for nursing mothers.”

No Florida State College officials were available for an interview Wednesday, a spokesman said.

Whether the Dear Colleague letter -- which explains how colleges, under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, may not exclude those students from any educational activities – applies to this case is “not a clear yes or no,” said Ada Meloy, general counsel at the American Council on Education.

“Certainly colleges should review any proclamations that are put out by the Department of Education and consider their policies in that light,” Meloy said. But, she added, “It does not appear that the Dear Colleague letter issued yesterday would be controlling in the situation.”

The guidance, which focuses on secondary schools but applies to all institutions that receive federal funding, does include a couple of passages that could be interpreted as applicable in this particular situation. (General OCR guidance like this is often open to interpretation until the office settles and shares the results of Title IX complaints with individual institutions.)

“Consider allowing excused absences for parenting students (both male and female) who need to take their children to doctors’ appointments or to take care of their sick children,” says the 34-page OCR pamphlet distributed to colleges. “Assist pregnant and parenting students who have excused absences by providing them with make-up assignments and exams.”

And the letter states: “Schools must treat pregnant students in the same way that they treat similarly situated students. Thus, any special services provided to students who have temporary medical conditions must also be provided to pregnant students.” (Note that parenting students are not included here.)

The Florida student’s situation “does very much play to the guidance,” said Lisa Maatz, director of public policy and government relations at the American Association of University Women. AAUW worked with OCR to update its 22-year-old guidance on pregnant and parenting students.

When asked whether the letter should prompt the Florida institution to reconsider this policy, Maatz said, “common sense tells you absolutely that it would.”

“If a school is willing to make appropriate accommodations so that, say, a dyslexic student has questions read to them or a student with some other difficulty has an extra hour of time because of the time it takes them to write things out, the accommodations that are made there seem very similar to the accommodations that could have been made in this situation,” she said. “I certainly think she has some hay to make here.”

Compared to Mabrey’s complaint about being banished from the testing center, battles over breastfeeding are relatively common in academe (particularly for faculty). OCR says in the letter that colleges must provide space for breastfeeding mothers (which Florida State does). It also said institutions can “provide leadership in coordinating” child care needed by pregnant and parenting students. Florida State operates a child care center on every campus, and also has a scholarship program for single parents.

Florida State College says in its policy that it regulates children on campus both to promote an academic environment and to protect minors from injury. That latter goal has been on the minds of many college officials -- and in some cases, has materialized in the form of new campus policies -- since the revelation that Jerry Sandusky abused children for years on Pennsylvania State University property.

“Given the recent concerns about minors on campus, it is not surprising that an institution would have a policy against having children on campus under various circumstances or in various locations,” Meloy said. “I think that the valid concerns that colleges have about minors on campus need to be recognized.”

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