ACLU Asks Sanford School District To Halt Single-Sex Programs Rooted In Stereotypes

Affiliate: ACLU of Maine
May 21, 2012 12:00 am

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Demand Letter Sent As Part Of Organization’s “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” Campaign

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NEW YORK – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Maine demanded that the Sanford School District halt single-sex programs in public schools. Based on the most recent information obtained through a Freedom of Access Act request, the programs appear to violate federal law by relying on harmful gender stereotypes.

The request is part of the ACLU’s multi-state “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” initiative to end the practice of separating boys and girls based on discredited science rooted in outdated stereotypes. An investigation by the ACLU reveals that programs in Sanford are based on disputed theories that suggest that boys and girls learn so differently that they need to be educated separately. Additionally, some schools across the country illegally make participation in their programs mandatory by not offering a viable co-ed alternative.

In the past few weeks, the ACLU has also sent similar public records requests to schools and school districts in Massachusetts, Indiana, Idaho Washington and Illinois, and continues to review records from pending requests in several other states, including Alabama, Wisconsin, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.

“Sex segregation in public schools is not only illegal but also unfair to both male and female students,” said Zachary Heiden, Legal Director of the ACLU of Maine Foundation. “Gender stereotypes are no basis for sound constitutional education policy.”

Documents produced in response to the ACLU of Maine FOAA request suggest how improper gender stereotypes were incorporated into the gender-segregated classrooms: the Willard School December News describes the sixth-grade girls class: “young ladies have developed some important routine [sic] for themselves one [sic] is a daily cup of cocoa as they read the Portland Press Herald and discuss local, national and global events.” Over on the boys’ side, there are different routines: “The class has created an exercise area within the class and all the young men have the opportunity to exercise . . .Ms. Wagenfield’s class has signed up with the NFL Experience which is a free program sponsored by the National Football League where students can earn points towards prizes by tracking and increasing their daily activity.”

“Federal law and the Constitution require equal educational opportunities for male and female students,” said Shenna Bellows, Executive Director of the ACLU of Maine Foundation. “Unfortunately, the program in Sanford includes exercise for boys but hot chocolate for girls, which only reinforces the stereotypes the school should be attempting to eradicate.”

Many gender-segregated school programs across the country are based on the ideas of Dr. Leonard Sax and other proponents of single-sex education, whose discredited theories on the supposed differences between boys’ and girls’ brains are rooted in archaic stereotypes. For example, Sax says that girls do badly under stress, so they should not be given time limits on a test; and that boys who like to read, do not enjoy contact sports and do not have a lot of close male friends should be firmly disciplined, required to spend time with “normal males” and made to play sports.

These theories were recently debunked in an article authored by a multidisciplinary team of scientists in the prestigious journal Science, which argued that sex segregation does not improve academic performance, but does foster stereotypes.

“We all want to fix failing schools. But coeducation is not the problem, and sex segregation is not the answer,” said Galen Sherwin, staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “Over and over we find that these programs are based on stereotypes that limit opportunities by reinforcing outdated ideas about how boys and girls behave.”

In order to safeguard against sex discrimination, federal law prohibits coeducational schools from implementing single-sex programs unless they meet extremely stringent legal requirements. At a minimum, schools must offer a persuasive justification for the decision to institute single-sex programming, the programs must be completely voluntary, and a substantially equal co-educational alternative must be available.

Based on information received by the ACLU, lack of compliance with these requirements is widespread. Some schools required students who did not wish to participate in the single-sex classes to enroll in another school, while others failed to alert parents that they had the choice to opt out of the classes. Other examples included offering classes to one sex, but not the other.

As part of the “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” campaign, the ACLU will continue to seek records on single-sex programs, send letters to school districts seeking an end to unlawful programs, and call on state governments to investigate violations. If such programs are not ended, the ACLU will consider pursuing further legal action, including filing lawsuits and administrative complaints with state and federal agencies.

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