How Georgia reacted to teen marriage

We want to get married
But we’re so young
So young
Can’t marry no one
The Beach Boys, I’m So Young (1965)

High school marriage is not often a topic of discussion these days. As Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston announced their upcoming marriage in 2008, the New York Times cited census records for 10 years earlier, that a mere one percent 15- to 17-year-old boys and girls had ever been married.

Outside of MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” television series, the idea of marriage at such an age seems bizarre. In 2015, the average age for first marriage was 27 for women and 29 for men, ages that have been on the rise for several years.

A few generations ago, marriage at a young age was much more common. In 1950, the average man married for the first time at 22, the average woman at 20. The numbers were the same in 1960, with slight fluctuation. The U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, in a 1973 study, said 7.2 percent of females aged 15-17 were wed.

With kids marrying so young and much more often, it is natural that it was a concern for school systems. Students were staying in school longer and Georgia systems were adding 12th grade, hopefully keeping their charges at their desks until they were 18.

Schools reacted to teen marriage in various ways. Some never batted an eye. Others thought it was a negative influence and discouraged it by not permitting these students to return to class.

Georgia rarely meddled in the policies of its school systems for this issue, but had a big case on its hands in 1953-54.

In Cobb County, the decision on whether to allow wedded students was made by each individual school. Campbell High was fine with marrieds, Acworth was not.

Acworth High’s ban on married students was challenged in 1953 by 17-year-old Barbara Ann Dempsey, who married during the school year to J.M. McCollum. McCollum was being called to active military service.

The Marietta Daily Journal took Mrs. McCollum’s side during her appeal.

“Here is a girl who wants to attend school so badly,” it said in an editorial dated December 11, 1953, “that she has hired a lawyer to take her case all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary.”

“[O]ne girl who wants to complete her high school education is denied this right. Her previous good school record, unblemished moral standing and the fact that her parents pay taxes to support schools are all to no avail. The Acworth School Board just doesn’t want married students in school.”

Cobb County’s Board of Education was willing to pay for McCollum to attend another high school in the county. Transportation to other schools would be too difficult, she said. In January 1954, the State Board of Education ruled Acworth must allow McCollum to return to school.

Acworth principal T.C. Cantrell initially refused to honor the ruling, then said he would resign in protest. Cantrell withdrew his resignation after the school’s faculty said it would go with him.

“I don’t want to tear up the school,” said Cantrell to the Daily Journal.

He was still unhappy with the ruling. Cantrell didn’t like that a married student might not be living with his or her parents. Also, “I don’t think parents want their teenagers to get sex education from 16- and 17-year-old married couples.”

Georgia had just ruled in favor of married students, but even with state Attorney General Eugene Cook’s opinion a year later in 1955 that married students could attend school, it did not mean that everyone agreed.

Policies varied from county to county, or as in the case of Cobb County at the time, from school to school. Many systems made policy decisions in the 1950s and 1960s, with policies that varied in some way or another.

One of the biggest differences in these plans were how they were applied.

Moultrie High decided to remove any student who married during the 1953-54 school year. This decision did not apply to students already married. Bacon County’s ban also allowed previously married students to stay.

Parents in Bacon, said The Alma Times, felt the earlier ruling to ban married students, had been unjust to them.

Jones County, which made a decision going into the 1954-55 term, said their ban was retroactive.

Jones superintendent W.E. Knox said, “Even though some of them had completed only their junior year, they nor any other married youths will be allowed entrance.”

Commerce also said their rules to bar the students in 1956 applied to those already hitched.

One of the systems that did pay attention to the state was Elberton city. Citing the Acworth case, in January 1954, the system reversed its own policy. About six females had been forced to drop out because of the rules.

By 1960, the teen marriage rate was declining for females. The Department of Health, Education and Welfare said 6.8 percent of females aged 15-17 were married, down from 7.2 percent in 1950. For males, the rate actually increased, albeit slightly, from 1.1 percent to 1.2 percent.

That year, Dougherty County, simply labeled married students as adults, then barred them from regular, daytime classes.

R.E. Lee put their own odd twist on a marriage ban in 1961. Students who married had to leave school for a year. Students who did re-enter school would be barred from literary or athletic events or even membership in school clubs. This policy, however, did not apply to those already married.

The same resolution by R.E. Lee in 1961 also said pregnant students could not attend school.

“Many parents” in the Rome city system also requested a ban and like the R.E. Lee ruling, it said the affected student could return a year later. Trion city also went with the one year rule and also kept the students from literary and athletics teams.

Athletics bans in conjunction with marriage was at least up for debate in Atlanta years earlier. In 1951, Sid Scarborough, superintendent of Atlanta’s city schools, said it was being considered. It would not be retroactive ban, but Scarborough said he had seen instances in the past where married athletes were bad influences.

When the ban came down in Houston County, it was said in an article by the Houston Home Journal that, “School officials say many married girls give trouble by describing their marital activities in rest room gatherings.” It was not stated if officials believed this was their students’ introduction to the birds and bees or rather the attitude that sex should not be discussed at all.

Opinions on male and female sexuality came up in a poll taken by the Research Division of the National Education Association in 1960. Polling teachers, the study said 53 percent were against barring married boys from the classroom. Only 45.4 percent felt the same for girls.

Marietta city schools introduced a similar ban to R.E. Lee in 1961. Their students would also be barred for a year after getting married. Then, if the wife became expectant, she would have to leave school for another year. The latter policy was an update of a former one, which said pregnant girls could stay in school for four and one-half months after discovering their condition. Now they would have to leave immediately.

Ten married students currently attended Marietta. If they were below their senior year, they would not be allowed to return for the 1962-63 school year.

Numbers were higher in the Richmond County system. Richmond Academy reported 51 marriages during the 1960-61 school term and 28 girls were attending school while married. Richmond banned married students for the 1961-62 term, with the ruling retroactive to those previously wed. Richmond did feel that not just married girls, but married boys were a bad influence.

In Wilcox County, the board of education’s plan was a bit more confusing. For a policy that was to be introduced for the 1963-64 school year, Wilcox students who married would be immediately removed from school. However, they were not barred from attending. Married students could appear before the principal and superintendent, then be readmitted to class. The student(s) could not participate in any other activities, though.

Policies on high school student marriage are seldom brought up now, likely because it is exceptionally rare. Even by 1970, the rate had gone down dramatically. After the HEW said 6.8 percent of 15- to 17-year-old girls were wed in 1960, it had dropped to 4.7 percent in 1970.

Sources: The Butler Herald – June 23, 1960, May 18, 1961, Aug. 17, 1961; Marietta Daily Journal – Dec. 11, 1953, Jan. 19, 1954, Jan. 22, 1954, May 18, 1962; Brunswick News – March 7, 1951; Wilcox County Chronicle – May 9, 1963; The Daily Tifton Gazette – Aug. 17, 1953; The Jones County News – Aug. 6, 1954; The Elberton Star – Jan. 22, 1954; The Alma Times – Aug. 27, 1953; Columbus Daily Enquirer – Nov. 4, 1960; The Commerce News – Oct. 18, 1956; Houston Home Journal – July 13, 1961; Augusta Chronicle – Aug. 11, 1961; Rome News-Tribune – Nov. 12, 1961; U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare – Teenagers: Marriages, Divorces, Parenthood, and Mortality.


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