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PARKERSBURG, W.Va. – The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of West Virginia, and the law firm Morrison & Foerster today reached a court-approved settlement with the Wood County Board of Education on behalf of a mother and her daughters challenging a single-sex education program at Van Devender Middle School that violated federal law and promoted harmful stereotypes about boys and girls. The Wood County Board of Education has agreed to abandon single-sex education for the next two school years, after which it must give the plaintiffs notice and seek permission from the court if it wishes to institute any single-sex program at any school in the district until the 2018-2019 school year.
"We're glad that the school has agreed to cease this blatantly unlawful program," said Sarah Rogers, attorney with the ACLU of West Virginia. "Wood County's children deserve a quality education that values them as individuals, rather than one that promotes harmful stereotypes."
The program at Van Devender separated students by sex on a mandatory basis for all core curriculum classes, and implemented strategies relying on overly broad sex-based generalizations that have never been proven to be effective in improving academic outcomes.
As an example, boys were permitted to move about the classroom to expend energy, while girls were expected to sit quietly. A video of the principal posted online also described boys' classrooms as arranged with the students seated side-by-side, with brighter lighting, because "when they look each other in the eye it becomes more of a confrontational type thing. Girls . . . sit around tables, where they can make eye contact, where they can make relationships, and that sort of thing."
A mother challenged the program after these practices negatively affected her daughters. One of the girls represented in the lawsuit was frequently reprimanded in class for her inability to sit still, despite the fact that she has attention deficit disorder. Another girl with poor vision struggled to read in the dimmer girls' classroom, while another girl was not permitted time to take notes during PowerPoint presentations because her teacher told her that girls are supposed to learn better through auditory, not visual, input. Her grades suffered as a result. "No child should struggle in school or be made to feel like they're abnormal just because they don't fit someone's idea of how boys or girls behave," said the mother, who has remained anonymous to protect her daughters' privacy. "Each of my daughters has a unique learning style and teachers should recognize that all students learn differently."
"We all want to see improvement in our public schools, but co-education was never the problem at Van Devender, and discriminatory programs like these are not the solution," said Galen Sherwin, staff attorney with the ACLU Women's Rights Project. "We hope that the Wood County Board of Education will turn its attention in the future to educational interventions that have a proven record of working, rather than resorting to 'quick fixes' that promote sex stereotypes."
In addition to forcing students into single-sex classes without parental consent, Van Devender offered no alternative to the single-sex classes, which meant that any family that wished to opt out would have to change schools altogether. In August 2012, a federal district court issued an order halting the program for the 2012-13 school year, noting that the school board's own expert said that educators at Van Devender had been "led astray" by proponents of single-sex education, based on a "pseudoscientific" theory claiming that boys' and girls' have different brains and learning styles. Today's settlement extends that cessation through 2014-15.
"It's especially satisfying when pro bono cases not only benefit our clients, but also society," said Roxann Henry, a litigation partner at Morrison & Foerster. "By safeguarding equal education rights, the outcome here does both."