CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit claiming a Wood County middle school's single-gender classes are in violation of federal law.
The lawsuit was filed against Parkersburg's Van Devender Middle School, its principal and a former assistant principal; the county Board of Education and Superintendent Pat Law.
It was filed this week on behalf of a parent identified as Jane Doe who has three daughters entering seventh grade at the school. The ACLU seeks unspecified damages.
The suit alleges sexual discrimination under the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause and Title IX, which prohibits schools that receive federal funding from discriminating based on gender.
The school began offering separate classes for sixth-grade girls and boys in reading, math, social studies and science in the 2010-11 school year. It was expanded to seventh graders last year and to eighth graders this year.
The lawsuit said the program was implemented because students of both sexes were lagging behind their peers in Wood County based on standardized test scores. But the ACLU contends single-gender classes often are based on stereotypes, faulty research and questionable science about how boys' and girls' brains develop.
Although participation in the single-sex classes was supposed to be voluntary, "at no time were parents of students assigned to the Van Devender single-sex classes asked to choose whether or not to enroll their children" in single-sex or co-educational classes in the four subjects, the lawsuit said.
During training sessions for the courses, teachers were advised to use "gender-specific strategies" in their teaching, the lawsuit said.
At Van Devender, "the boys' and girls' classrooms differ in their physical configuration in numerous ways," the lawsuit said. "In the boys' classrooms, the lights are brighter, the rooms are kept cooler, the desks are arranged side-by-side, and the boys have bean bag chairs in which they are allowed to sit during classes.
"The girls' classrooms are more dimly lit, the rooms are kept warmer, the desks are arranged face-to-face, and the girls do not have bean bag chairs."
Further, male students can move around during class, while girls are expected to sit still. Boys' classes have occasionally been held outdoors where exercised has been permitted, while the girls have not been given the same choice, the lawsuit said.
"The girls have been denied opportunities available only to the boys," the lawsuit said. "...The girls are obligated to sit still in class while the boys are not, and the girls are punished by reprimand or temporary expulsion from the classroom for behaving in a manner for which the boys are not punished."
Law and school Principal Steve Taylor declined comment Thursday.
Earlier this year, the ACLU sent letters to school officials in Wood, Kanawha and Cabell counties asking them to stop placing students in single-gender classes. Kanawha and Cabell counties are ending their programs for logistic and administrative reasons. Letters also were sent to school systems in six other states.
The ACLU's action was part of an initiative called "Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes."
School officials have said they believe the classes comply with Title IX. But Law told the board last month that it would cost at least $10,000 to defend the program in court.
Law and Taylor also have said there wasn't enough data to definitively show the program has had a positive effect. But Taylor believed it was best for the students.
The lawsuit said one of Jane Doe's daughters has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, has trouble sitting still in class at times and is frequently reprimanded. Another daughter is legally blind, has difficulty reading in the girls' dimly lit classrooms and was refused a request to brighten the lights. The third daughter also has poor eyesight. After a year in the girls' classrooms, she required stronger prescriptions for glasses and contact lenses.
But their mother believes sending her children to another school would be academically and psychologically detrimental, the lawsuit said.