Sandra Lantz was about four months away from graduation from high school in Bothell, Wash., when the school’s principal and vice principal took her aside.
Despite her good grades, a promising intellect and extracurricular zeal, they wanted her six-months-pregnant belly out of sight immediately. It was Feb. 4, 1963. A high-school diploma was out of the question.
“I asked them if I could at least stay until Feb. 14, my birthday and Valentine’s Day, and they said absolutely not,” she said. “They treated me like I had a disease, and they didn’t want anyone else to catch it.”
Ashamed, the 17-year-old crept out the back door and walked 5 miles home, her future uncertain.
With the support of her friends and family, however, she accomplished more than those two administrators ever thought she would.
She went to Seattle’s Edison Technical School that fall to get the two credits she still needed for a high-school diploma, then earned a bachelor’s degree from Western Washington University. She also earned two master’s degrees and became a clinical social worker, author and an editor for Pacific Northwest literary journal Cirque.
She lives in Anchorage, Alaska, with a husband who made her Sandra Kleven at 22, and raised her firstborn, Michael, as his own. Together, they had three more children.
Still, it had always bothered Lynda Humphrey, a Class of ’63 classmate and retired elementary school principal, that Kleven was exiled from high school so abruptly. Humphrey wanted to do something.
Initially, she wanted Kleven’s perseverance and achievements celebrated by getting her name on the School District’s Wall of Honor at a local stadium in Bothell. But there was one thing Kleven needed to be eligible, though, and she didn’t have it.
“She said, ‘Remember, Lynda, I never got a diploma from Bothell High,’ ” Humphrey recalled. “And I just felt this clunk in my stomach.”
That set Humphrey on a mission: giving her friend a real Bothell High School diploma with the graduation ceremony she should have had more than a half-century ago.
‘Groundswell of support’
On a recent Saturday, Humphrey watched School District Superintendent Larry Francois hand Kleven a legal, not honorary, Class of ’63 diploma.
“She found all these people were quite excited to do it,” Kleven said of her friend. “It was tremendous to see this groundswell of support.”
But first, Humphrey had to find transcripts, have lawyers and education leaders review the diploma request, ask the school district to research what the 1963 graduation requirements were and organize a ceremony for the class’ 51st reunion.
Kleven had been welcomed at earlier reunions, but Humphrey never wanted her to come to another reunion feeling she wasn’t an official part of the Class of ’63 family.
For the most part, pregnant girls in school today can find a lot more support than Kleven did. Years later and hundreds of miles away from Bothell in Alaska, the contrast between past and present brings her to tears at times.
“I was in an alternative school in Wasilla [Alaska], and they have on-site day care, a parade of the students’ children in their Halloween gear and — I’m not that emotional usually — but I just sat there blinking back tears,” said Kleven, who’s passionate about making sure teens have the support they need to finish high school no matter what. “In my day, the impulse of schools was to do the opposite of that.”
Rejection still hurts
The judgment and rejection of the administrators all those years ago still cut deep.
“When school administrators tell you, ‘You are less than others,’ you don’t get over that quickly,” Kleven said. “It had been impressed upon me that a high-school diploma was essential, so I was wounded when they took that away from me.”
Humphrey said she remembered that when she was principal in Alderwood Manor, Wash.
“What you’re told at school has a huge influence on you, second only to what your parents might say,” she said.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, there are still plenty of school leaders nationwide who inadvertently, if not overtly, encourage pregnant teens to drop out. Spokesman Doug Honig said discrimination against pregnant teens often happens when schools aren’t flexible enough for them.
“There can be a lack of accommodation for doctor’s appointments, opportunities to make up school work, things that have the effect of driving the kid out of school,” Honig said.
Under Title IX, students have the right to stay in their original classes or school, participate in any extracurricular activity they choose and have pregnancy-related absences excused, he added.
The day of her belated graduation, Kleven’s husband, mother and 51-year-old son all were in attendance. Humphrey made sure that her cap and gown were white, just like the girls’ gowns were in 1963, and readied “Pomp and Circumstance” on her iPad. She reminded Sandra which direction the blue tassel is turned.
About 50 friends applauded as Francois handed her a Class of ’63 diploma. As the room quieted, Kleven was handed a microphone.
“I only thought one sentence into what I could say here — and I knew I would stammer through it,” Sandra said. “And that one sentence is, ‘Now I belong.’ ”