West Virginia School District Suspends Single-Sex Classes Rooted in Stereotypes

June 6, 2012 4:43 pm

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School Had Been Warned to Halt Unlawful Program as Part of ACLU’s “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” Campaign

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HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – The Cabell County Board of Education voted yesterday to suspend a single-sex program at a West Virginia middle school after the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of West Virginia identified serious legal concerns with the program, including reliance on outdated sex stereotypes.

“Hopefully this will send a signal to schools across the state that single-sex programs are not a magic bullet,” said Brenda Green, executive director of the ACLU of West Virginia. “This is especially true in light of mounting evidence that separating students on the basis of sex does not actually improve academic outcomes. Our children deserve real solutions, not fake science.”

The school board received a letter from the ACLU as part of the “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” initiative to end the practice of separating boys and girls in public schools based on discredited science that is rooted in stereotypes.

ACLU state offices – including those in Maine, West Virginia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Virginia – sent cease-and-desist letters to individual school districts to halt programs that could violate federal and state law by forcing students into a single-sex environment, relying on harmful gender stereotypes and depriving students of equal educational opportunities.

“Coeducation is not the problem in our failing schools, and gimmicky single-sex programs are not the answer,” said Galen Sherwin, staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “Our investigations across the country have demonstrated that these programs are largely based on stereotypes that limit opportunities by reinforcing outdated ideas about how boys and girls behave.”

Many of these programs are based on the discredited theories of Dr. Leonard Sax and other single-sex education proponents, who claimed 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.

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.

At Barboursville Middle School, evidence suggested that faculty used different teaching methods in the boys’ and girls’ classrooms. The ACLU’s investigation revealed that the decision to institute these programs was taken without any articulated mission, goal or justification, and with little deliberation, public participation or oversight by the school district. Faculty members made comments to the media describing how “teachers try to use different angles for addressing the same subjects, those that might affect one sex more than the other. . . . [F]or boys they may use examples like tennis shoes or similar things in order to help them understand their lessons.”

The school district could not prove it had considered any legitimate educational research or school- or county-specific data to support its decision to segregate students across all core classes. The school also failed to meet federal requirements that enrollment in single-sex classes be voluntary or that a coeducational alternative be available. Any student who did not wish to take part was forced to enroll in a different school.

As part of the “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” campaign, the ACLU will continue to demand 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 legal action, including filing lawsuits and administrative complaints with state and federal agencies.

For more information on the campaign, please visit: www.aclu.org/womens-rights/teach-kids-not-stereotypes

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