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Louisiana School Board Suspends Sex-Segregation Program

Galen Sherwin,
Former Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU Women’s Rights Project
Lenora M. Lapidus,
Former Director,
Women's Rights Project, ACLU
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June 7, 2011

A local school board in Vermilion Parish, Louisiana, voted Thursday night to suspend a program at a public middle school that has for two years separated girls from boys in core curriculum classes. The decision was announced as the ACLU was poised to file papers in the District Court seeking to stop Rene Rost Middle School (RRMS) from providing sex-segregated classes during the 2011–12 school year, following a favorable ruling by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in April.

The reason the school board gave for its decision? Too few parents had elected single-sex classes for the 2011-12 school year, leaving the coed classes overenrolled, a result the board recognized was "not going to wash with the court" in light of the pending litigation. The timing suggests that the school board also recognized that it could not satisfy the legal requirement that the program have an adequate justification.

The sex-segregation at RRMS is part of a recent wave of public schools throughout the United States adopting such programs. Most of these programs are started with little or no justification other than the unfounded theory that girls and boys learn differently — because girls' and boys' brains develop differently — and as a result they need to be educated separately and taught differently. Such programs are based on and perpetuate gender stereotypes, such as the view that girls learn best, and therefore should be taught in, a collaborative environment and should not be given timed tests because they don't perform well under pressure, while boys should be spoken to sternly and permitted to jump around and throw footballs during class.

The ACLU Women's Rights Project, the ACLU of Louisiana, and our cooperating law-firm, Debevoise & Plimpton LLP filed this lawsuit in September 2009 on behalf of two brave girls who were placed in sex-segregated classes at RRMS, despite their parents' wish that they be placed in coeducational classes. The lawsuit argues that the program violates Title IX — the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in federally-funded educational institutions — and the Constitutional guarantee of Equal Protection.

The evidence showed that RRMS had no adequate justification for the program and that girls and boys were taught differently. For example, teachers gave girls a reading quiz about bracelets and boys a reading quiz about bikes, and assigned The Witch of Blackbird Pond to the girls and Where the Red Fern Grows to the boys, because, as one teacher put it, boys like "hunting" and "dogs," but girls prefer "love stories."

The District Court recognized that the program had been wrongfully implemented and was based on "extremely flawed" data, but allowed the sex segregation to continue, with minor modifications. On appeal, the 5th Circuit found that the District Court had not applied the law correctly, and sent the case back.

The lack of parental support for sex-segregated classes at RRMS is evidence that enthusiasm for sex-segregated education in public schools may be waning; plans to launch a similar program of sex-segregated classes at a high school in Pittsburgh also recently floundered due to insufficient parental support and low enrollment.

The Vermilion Parish school board's decision to suspend sex segregated education is a major victory. However, it does not mean sex-segregation is over permanently. This point was made clear by a school board member who is reported to have said, "I'm not willing to abandon the program...I want the court to know we're not abandoning this." Unless and until the school board stops sex segregation for good, we will continue to press forward with the case on behalf of our clients.

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