Is Putting Boys and Girls in Separate Classrooms Legal?
Hundreds of public schools are segregating kids by sex, citing discredited research on learning differences.
Update 08/29/2012 11:00 PM: Today a federal judge blocked same-sex classes at the Van Devender middle school in West Virginia for the 2012-13 school year. The ACLU's lawsuit (filed on behalf of one of the school's families), however, will continue to move forward, and the court's ruling doesn't put a permanent end to the program. The court found that the sex-based program at Van Devender violated federal law by not being completely voluntary. It also noted that "certain gender-based teaching techniques based on stereotypes and lacking any scientific basis may very well be harmful to students." Van Devender middle school must return to coeducation on Monday.
At the Van Devender middle school in Wood County, West Virginia, girls and boys learn in separate classrooms. The girls' rooms are lit with dimmer light than those of the boys. They are also kept at warmer temperatures. Girls must sit still, at shared desks. Boys get individual desks and are allowed to move around, sit on beanbag chairs, even lie on the floor. If girls fidget, they're sent to the boys' classroom—where they can't participate in the lessons, and must instead sit facing the wall. The school motto: "Van Devender Middle School: Where Gender Matters."
The school claims that its sex-segregated classrooms are a scientifically proven way to boost academic performance. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, not only are they not scientific, they're illegal. Last week, the organization filed a federal suit (PDF) against the Van Devender school, alleging that its single-sex classrooms violate Title IX, as well as the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause. (Not to mention that they diminish the quality of students' education.)
The case is led by ACLU cooperating attorney Amy Katz, who's got her own spin on the school's motto. "[Kids] are getting the message that the single most important thing in this place is whether you're a boy or a girl," she says. "I like to say, 'Van Devender: Where Gender Matters, more than anything else.'" At a court hearing yesterday, the ACLU's request for a restraining order to prevent the school from splitting sexes when classes start this Thursday was denied—so Van Devender will enter the school year with its single-sex program intact. (The program can still get cut off down the line; the ACLU has another hearing on the case next week.)
The Van Devender suit is one of several that have cropped up against school districts mandating gender-differentiated education. Late last year, the ACLU shut down single-sex ed in the Vermilion Parish school district in Louisiana; it also unsuccessfully sued a sex-segregated school in Kentucky. More cases are likely. Since the Department of Education eased federal restrictions for single-sex programs in 2006, hundreds have materialized around the country. ACLU offices in Alabama, Florida, Maine, Mississippi, Virginia, and West Virginia have sent cease-and-desist letters to school districts, warning them that their single-sex programs may be illegal.