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ACLU raises issue with single-sex education programs

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Virginia sought a commitment today from multiple elementary and secondary schools in the Commonwealth to refrain from engaging in further unlawful sex segregation through single-sex programs in public schools.

Based on the most recent information obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, at least four schools indicated that they previously operated single-sex education programs and activities, several of which are likely to have constituted sex discrimination in violation of federal law because they appear to have relied on harmful gender stereotypes, depriving students of equal educational opportunities merely because of their sex.

The ACLU of Virginia sent letters to six schools in all, including seeking confirmation from two additional schools that no single-sex programs or activities operated in prior years. The schools were Fred M. Lynn Middle School in Prince William County, Forrest Elementary School in Hampton, Culpeper Middle School in Culpeper County, Laburnum Elementary School in Henrico County, Henderson Middle School in Richmond, and Bailey Bridge Middle School in Chesterfield County.

The letters sent advised these schools that single-sex education programs and activities may run afoul of numerous legal provisions under state and federal law, including Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and the United States Constitution. The ACLU of Virginia sought an agreement from schools to refrain from engaging in any and all unlawful single-sex and gender-specific programs or activities effective at the start of next school year. Pursuant to the agreement, the ACLU of Virginia will agree to waive its rights to pursue any further records or to take any future legal action relating to these past programs, for a period of five years. The ACLU of Virginia is still in the process of reviewing records gained from Freedom of Information Act requests to three additional schools in Virginia that are currently operating single-sex programming.

The letters sent are 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Not Stereotypes” initiative to end the practice of separating boys and girls based on discredited science rooted in outdated stereotypes.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 Virginia have been based on these disputed theories suggesting that boys and girls learn so differently that they need to be educated separately.

“We were pleased to learn that several schools have abandoned their single-sex programs over the past few years,” said Katherine Greenier, Director of the Patricia M. Arnold Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU of Virginia. “The termination of these programs sends a clear signal that schools’ costly experiments with segregation have been a waste of time and effort that have diverted resources from programs that actually will improve the education of both boys and girls.”

As an example, one Virginia school’s prior program offered an optional single-gender English class for 8th graders – one class of males and one of females. The proposal for the class was based on debunked science promoting old stereotypes. The class proposal alleged that brain research supports theories that boys need more activity and hands-on tasks while girls are more social and have a preference for group work; they need less physical movement. This rationale perpetuates antiquated gender stereotypes that limit opportunities for both boys and girls.

Many of the single-sex programs operating 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.

In the past few weeks, the ACLU has also sent 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, and South Carolina.

Based on information received by the ACLU, lack of compliance with these requirements is widespread. Some schools across the country 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.

For more information on the campaign, please visit:

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