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August 16, 2012
The Constitutionality of Sex-Segregated Education Challenged in Lawsuit Against Middle School
A complaint filed by the ACLU in Doe v. Wood County Board of Education argues that the mandated sex-segregated education practices of Van Devender Middle School in Parkersburg, West Virginia violate the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause as well as Title IX.
The complaint alleges not only that the school separates children by gender, but that the educational practices in the sex-segregated classrooms are different. This is based on teacher-training that posits the differences between children based upon sex. Girls do not like stress; boys do. Girls like warmer rooms; boys cooler. Girls like to be face-to-face; boys learn better in rows. Girls learn better when their movement is minimized and their rooms are darker; boys "need" to move and have light.
But despite the school's motto - - - "where gender matters" - - - the complaint makes allegations that gender should not be the only thing that matters. For example:
Anne Doe is legally blind and has difficulty reading in the girls’ classroom, which is kept dimmer than the boys’ classroom. Anne would benefit from brighter lights to enable her to read more easily during class, but she has not been permitted that option. When Anne asked her teachers to brighten the lights to accommodate her vision problems, her teachers refused and told her to move closer to the window.
The complaint alleges that "Sex is an imprecise proxy for psychological, learning, emotional and developmental differences in adolescents." The complaint also stresses that sex-segregation and sex-differntial teaching "harm children who do not conform to the gender stereotypes advanced in these classes, such as boys who would happily engage in a conversation about literary characters’ emotions or girls who need to move around," and thus harm children.
Although the complaint followed the usual practice and did not cite any cases, including United States v. Virginia (VMI), the complaint's allegations fit squarely within the VMI rubric. While VMI is often recalled as involving the exclusion of women from the Virginia Military Academy, Virginia had instituted sex-segregated education. In VMI, Virginia's argument was that the Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership (VWIL), at Mary Baldwin College, satisfied equal protection concerns by offering women a "cooperative method" that would be better suited to women and reinforce their self-esteem rather than VMI's "adversative method," suited for male citizen-soldiers. Justice Ginsburg, writing for the Court, rejected this sort of stereotyping and generalizations about "the way women are."
Indeed, if the allegations of the complaint prove true, it will be difficult for the school to argue that it is not engaging in the type of stereotyping and generalizations about "the way" girls - - - and boys - - - are that was rejected by the Court in VMI.
[image: "Trouble in the classroom" by August Heyn, circa 1920]
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