The ACLU Kicks Up a Fuss About Sex-Segregated Middle School Classes

The ACLU has filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education, alleging that a middle school in Wisconsin has divvied up its fifth graders into classrooms based on gender.

According to the Raw Story, the ACLU alleges that the program started in 2006, when the 451-student Somerset Middle School in St. Croix County began offering one homeroom for boys, one for girls, and two mixed — specifically in the fifth grade. By 2008, they'd bumped it up to two for girls, two for boys and one mixed. Separated students "appear to have been separated by sex in all core subjects, as well as extracurricular activities and non-academic periods like lunch and recess," so we're not just talking about health class, here.

The ACLU argues that the move wasn't adequately justified, relying largely on "site visits to other schools with single-sex classes, anecdotal reports, and the writings of proponents of single-sex education, including the controversial work of Dr. Leonard Sax and Michael Gurian." The ACLU's FOIA request turned up info that sounds like it fell out of a teachers' manual from the late 1950s:

Somerset Middle School presented materials outlining numerous purported differences between boys and girls, including the following claims:  "Girls and guys notice different things (boys: motion; girls: bright colors and people)";  "Girls are more easily distracted than boys and prefer quiet and focus";  "Girls hear better";  "Boys are messy";  "Teams work for boys as boys value team affiliation above friendship"22  "Adulthood in terms of brain development is age 22 for females and age 30 for males";23  "Girls draw nouns. Boys draw verbs."

What's more, the complaint alleges, the program isn't just rooted in stereotypes but actively promotes them. For instance:

Somerset released a chart of teacher expectations in single-gender classrooms, which specifically encouraged teachers to "address stereotypical weaknesses" of both boys and girls. For girls, these weaknesses included "Time to share ~ meet emotional needs" and "CLIQUES ~ avoiding them/work on constantly." For boys, weaknesses were "Messiness: organize for the day" and "Direct gentlemanly behavior instruction (MANNERS)."

Yes, by all means let's encourage girls to believe they're little bundles of feelings. Great idea. Definitely won't have any negative impacts.

Most seriously, the ACLU expresses concerns that the program might not be as voluntary as it should be. The organization alleges that the info presented to parents was misleadingly pro same-sex education, and in at least one year same-sex classes were opt-out rather than opt-in. The ACLU wants the program discontinued entirely.

But there might be something more than retrograde attitudes at work, here. The focus on boys' manners and messiness sounds like this could be a way to separate out badly behaved or otherwise troubled students. And the ACLU's complaint does express concerns about the difference in the treatment between girls and boys with special needs:

Additionally, questions exist as to the nature of distribution of students with special needs between single-sex and coeducational classes. For example, surveys of parents from suggested that girls with special needs may have been excluded from single sex classes, while boys with special needs may have been tracked into those classes.

It's no accident that the ACLU is taking up this particular case, which isn't the only one of its kind. A 2006 Title IX shift made it easier to separate students by gender, and it's been stuck in the organization's craw ever since. In 2012 the ACLU released a study outlining all the problems with same-sex classrooms. They're far from the only opponents—but the programs have their fervent defenders, too, like Christina Hoff Sommers.

The potential impact goes far beyond any one year's test scores. The numbers for women in STEM are already dismal; if we start literally telling girls in middle school that they're different, it's not going to help. And what about the boy who just doesn't give a hoot about sports? How's he going to feel dumped into a classroom where the teacher thinks that's the most appropriate metaphor to teach everything?

Once you start handing those flyers, it doesn't matter if you offer mixed-gender classrooms, too. You can't unring the bell.

Image via Shutterstock