West Virginia Family Challenges Single-Sex Middle School Program Rooted in Stereotypes

August 15, 2012

ACLU Files Lawsuit on Behalf of Family that Has Been Adversely Affected by Faulty Program

PARKERSBURG, W.Va. – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of West Virginia today sued a middle school they contend harms the education of students by illegally forcing them into same-sex classes and using discredited sex-based teaching methods.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of a mother and her daughters, contends Van Devender Middle School implemented a curriculum that relies on faulty science and outmoded stereotypes. For example, the boys’ classrooms are more brightly lit and teachers permit boys to move about during class to exert energy, on the theory that boys see better in bright light. In contrast, girls are to sit quietly and share feelings in dimly lit rooms.

“Supporters of these programs make completely unfounded generalizations about boys and girls, but offer no proof that these strategies pay off academically,” said Sarah Rogers, staff attorney with the ACLU of West Virginia. “What has been proven, however, is that these programs foster stereotypes and hurt kids who don’t fit the idea of how a stereotypical boy or girl is supposed to learn and behave.”

Teaching based on stereotypes places any student who does not fall into artificially created norms at risk. For example, a girl represented in the lawsuit is frequently reprimanded in class for her inability to sit still, despite the fact that she has attention deficit disorder. As punishment she is frequently sent to the boys’ room where she is not permitted to take part in physical or academic activities with the boys, but instead is told to sit and face a wall.

“My children are suffering academically and made to feel as though they’re abnormal because they don’t fit these completely untrue stereotypes,” said the mother, who has remained anonymous to protect her daughters’ privacy. “All kids learn differently, no matter what sex they are, and my daughters and their classmates deserve better.”

One of her daughters is legally blind and has repeatedly requested that the lights in her classroom be made brighter like they are in the boys’ classroom. In response, she was told to sit by a window, which was inadequate and further interfered with her ability to participate in class. She consequently required a stronger prescription for her glasses and contacts. Another daughter 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 have gone down as a result.

“It can be tempting to resort to dramatic changes when it comes to fixing public schools. But coeducation is not the problem, and separating kids to teach to sex stereotypes is certainly not the answer,” said Amy L, Katz, cooperating attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “What’s happening in this school is happening across the country in other misguided programs, and children are suffering for it.”

Federal law allows coeducational schools to implement single-sex programs only if they can offer a compelling reason for the decision. Programs may not be based on generalizations about the talents and capacities of each sex. They must be completely voluntary, and a substantially equal co-ed alternative must be available, which Van Devender does not offer. That means any family that wishes to opt out would have to change schools.

Many single-sex programs, including the one at Van Devender, are based on discredited theories of the supposed differences between boys’ and girls’ brains, including ones that claimed girls do badly under stress, so they should not be given time limits on tests; and that boys who like to read, do not enjoy contact sports and do not have many close male friends should be firmly disciplined, required to spend time with “normal males” and made to play sports.

The clients in this case reached out to the ACLU when they became aware of the nature of the sex separation at Van Devender as the result of ACLU’s “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” campaign questioning stereotyped single-sex programs nationwide.

Counsel on the case include Lenora Lapidus, Galen Sherwin, Christina Brandt-Young and Amy L. Katz of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project; Sarah Rogers of the ACLU of West Virginia; Joshua Hartman, Roxann Henry and Marissa Harris of Morrison Foerster LLP; and Roger Forman.

For more information on “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” please visit: www.aclu.org/womens-rights/teach-kids-not-stereotypes

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