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Sex-Segregated Education on Trial Today

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Today, the first-ever court hearing over sex-segregated classes in coed public schools begins in a federal court in Lafayette, Louisiana.

In August 2009, the parents of students of the Rene A. Rost Middle School in Kaplan, Louisiana, learned that the school would begin segregating all core curriculum classes in four grades according to sex, and that no coed alternative would be offered. One parent, the mother of two daughters at Rene A. Rost, contacted the ACLU. We in turn contacted the school board, informing it that mandatory sex-segregated classes are unlawful, and we'd be forced to file a lawsuit unless they, at a minimum, offered a coed option.

The school board acquiesced, and responded that they would offer a coed option, making the choice of sex-segregated classes voluntary. But they didn't follow through: On the first day of the school year, August 17, 2009, core curriculum classes were sex-segregated. The school board then appeared to follow through on their promise of a coed option, sending a letter to parents asking them to choose between sex-segregated and coed classes. Our client elected coed classes for both of her daughters, an 8th grader and a 6th grader. In fact, 33 percent of parents selected coed classes for their kids.

But in fact, there was no real choice. The administration was actually asking parents to choose between sex-segregated classes or pre-existing special education classes that had always been coed. (Curiously, the school principal's belief in the superiority of sex segregation didn't extend to students with special education requirements.)

This is no choice at all.

It is indeed unlikely that any sex segregation within a coed school can be acceptable under Title IX, which was intended to prohibit sex-based distinctions among students in the same manner that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited race-based classifications. It is, in fact, quite startling that many people who would never consider segregation based on race or religion in a public school would accept sex segregation.

Social science studies of student performance in coed versus sex-segregated environments do not demonstrate any performance benefit attached to segregation when class size, school resources and socioeconomic status are taken into consideration.

In 2005, the Department of Education finished an extensive review (PDF) comparing single-sex and coed schooling, and concluded that there is no clear evidence that students are more likely to succeed in single-sex schools. Indeed, there is growing evidence that sex segregation may be harmful to students. The segregation itself conveys to students that the single most important thing about them is their sex, and it makes them more focused on the stereotyped expectations for both sexes.

The segregation policy at Rost Middle School is based on harmful gender stereotypes about the ways children learn and behave. The school's principal relied on pop "brain science" that suggests that boys and girls should be taught differently. However, this "science" is little more than age-old sex stereotypes dressed up in flimsy studies that do not hold up. For example, the principal has written: "males learn best in kinesthetic activities, and females may be content to simply observe;" and boys are "more likely to enjoy argument and lively classroom debate." Consequently, the boys at Rost are given more freedom of movement in the classrooms than girls, and different teaching styles are used in the boys' and girls' classrooms.

Even the Rost reading assignments have been tailored to worn out sex stereotypes about the reading preferences of boys and girls. The girls' class was assigned a book about a love triangle, while the boys' class was assigned a book about hunting. The girls' book conveys the message that girls who are independent and take risks are rejected by society, and that elopement with a man is the best escape from society's scorn. The boys' book, by contrast, conveys the message that boys who are independent and take risks are rewarded with adventure and societal approval.

We filed our lawsuit last September, charging that sex segregation in public schools violates Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the Title IX regulations of numerous federal agencies, and the U.S. Constitution. Today's hearing will be over our motion for a preliminary injunction, which, if we prevail, would halt single-sex classes at Rene A. Rost while our lawsuit proceeds.

The real world does not segregate men from women. A public school environment that teaches that males and females are so fundamentally different that they must be educated separately does all children—and ultimately society—an injustice.