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Back to Coeducation in Wood County: Judge Rules School May Not Separate Students by Sex This Year

Amy L. Katz,
ACLU Women's Rights Project
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August 30, 2012

The Van Devender Middle School in Wood County, West Virginia, will return to coeducation next week, thanks to the efforts of a courageous mother who refused to allow her daughters to be assigned to discriminatory single-sex classes for another year. Girls and boys were separated at Van Devender for all core curriculum classes and were being taught using different methods based on dangerous sex stereotypes.

In response to a lawsuit brought on behalf of the mother and her daughters by the ACLU, the ACLU of West Virginia, and the law firm of Morrison & Foerster LLP, the federal court in West Virginia has directed the school to stop separating classes by sex for the entire 2012-13 school year.

Van Devender is a neighborhood middle school to which students are assigned based on the location of their residence. The school began implementing sex separation for all academic classes with the sixth grade in the Fall of 2010. This would have been the third year of sex separation, and for the first time it would have applied to all students in grades 6 to 8.

Since 2009, Van Devender administrators and teachers have been working with Leonard Sax and the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education (NASSPE) in developing single-sex classes at Van Devender. As recently as last week, the school had a training session for all its teachers featuring materials prepared by NASSPE board member David Chadwell in which boys were described as “smart,” “arrogant,” “busy,” “eager” and seeking “the big picture.” The words “careful,” “insecure,” “patient,” “focused” and “lacking independence” typified girls.

In the ruling Judge Goodwin observed “the court does note that the science behind single-sex education appears to be, at best inconclusive, and certain gender-based teaching techniques based on stereotypes and lacking any scientific basis may very well be harmful to students. Even Professor [Rosemary] Salomone, the expert witness called by the defense, agreed with the ACLU on the issue of brain research – that it’s based on the rationale of pseudoscience – and suggested that many schools were ‘led astray’ by the teachings of Dr. Leonard Sax.”

Judge Goodwin ruled that in order to comply with U.S. Department of Education regulations implementing Title IX, a school must have the “unequivocal,” “clear and affirmative assent” of a child’s parent or guardian before placing the child in a single-sex classroom. In other words, any program in the future must be opt-in only. “An opt-out provision is insufficient to meet the requirement that single-sex classes be ‘completely voluntary.’”

This well-reasoned opinion should persuade school districts that schools that assign students to single-sex classes are violating their students’ civil rights. The default option in this country is coeducation. The court’s opinion should also serve as a warning to school districts that basing single-sex classes on sex stereotypes and so-called brain science is simply wrong and they should not be “led astray” by people advocating these groundless theories.

On Monday the students of Van Devender can get back to the task of education without being told that the single most important thing about them is their sex.

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