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Same-sex classes spark lawsuit

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Same-sex classrooms in Wood County have prompted a lawsuit by a woman identified as Jane Doe and her minor daughters.

The American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia filed the suit against the Wood County Board of Education, the last county in the state to have same-sex classrooms, on behalf of the woman and her daughters.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court last Wednesday.

 Some schools in Kanawha and Cabell counties recently ended the practice of separating boys and girls.

Prior to that, two schools in Kanawha County  — Stonewall Jackson Middle School and Anne Bailey Elementary School — had same-sex classrooms for certain subjects

On May 21, the ACLU of West Virginia sent letters to Wood, Cabell and Kanawha counties asking that the practice be discontinued.

Both Cabell and Kanawha counties opted to end the programs before the beginning of this school year, said Sarah Rogers, ACLU of West Virginia staff attorney.

During a previous interview, Anne Bailey Principal Robert Somerville said the decision to discontinue the practice was a result of logistics and not the ACLU's letter.

It was hard to get the same number of boys and girls in classes, and that was one reason the practice was discontinued, said Missie Ruddle, Kanawha County assistant superintendent of middle schools in a previous interview.

However, she also said the conversations between the ACLU and the board's attorney might have prompted the decision.

Once placed in a same-sex classroom, students could not choose to move into a traditional classroom, she said during the previous interview. Ruddle also said the board's attorney, Jim Withrow, had told the principal of Stonewall Jackson Middle School that the practice could pose legal challenges.       

The state ACLU wants to put an end to separating boys and girls at Van Devender Middle School in Wood County, because it says the practice violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the federal law known as Title IX, Rogers said. 

"We believe these classes perpetuate gender stereotypes and hurt boys and girls academically," Rogers said.

Wood County Schools Superintendent James Patrick Law said he was limited on how much he could say about the case since the litigation is pending in federal court.

The lawsuit was filed a little more than a week before school was scheduled to start in Wood County. Law said he could not discuss whether the Board of Education would move forward with same-sex classrooms at Van Devender in the upcoming school year.

Van Devender is the only school in Wood County that has same-sex classrooms and this would the third year for the program.

"We did this to improve student performance," Law said. 

However, he could not say if the program has been successful because of the short time it has been in place.

"We haven't had a student go all the way through middle school under this program yet," he said.

Rogers contends the program actually hurts academic performance because it perpetuates gender stereotypes.

"These programs often rely on discredited and outdated theories," she said.

For example, theories supporting same-sex classrooms include one that discourages time limits on tests for girls in the belief that they do not perform well under pressure, Rogers said.

Another theory is that boys should be allowed to move around the classroom more. 

In previous years, only boys and girls in sixth and seventh grades have been divided into single-sex classrooms in Wood County. However, the board had planned to add eighth graders to the program this year, Law said.

Wood County school board members will discuss the lawsuit with attorneys before making a decision, Law said.

He said in other parts of the country similar lawsuits have cost boards about $30,000. 

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a woman and her three daughters who wish to remain anonymous, Rogers said. The daughters are all students at Van Devender Middle School, according to the complaint on file at the U.S. District Court Clerk's Office.

The complaint alleges the girls have been discriminated against. It says board members were aware of the legal requirement that participation in same-sex classrooms be voluntary but did not provide students a co-educational alternative. 

The lawsuit also states that the boys' classrooms are brighter and the rooms are kept cooler. The girls' rooms are not only more dimly lit and warmer, but the desks are arranged face-to-face.

The desks in the boys' classrooms are arranged side-by-side, according to the complaint.

The plaintiff also alleges that one of her daughters suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and she sometimes has trouble sitting still. 

"She is not permitted to move around freely during classes in the girls' classroom to which she is assigned and as a result she is frequently reprimanded in class," the complaint reads. "Upon information and belief, similar movement in the boys' classroom is tolerated and not reprimanded."

On numerous occasions, the girl has been sent to the boys' classroom because she was "acting up," the complaint reads.

"As the only girl in class, and deprived of her companionship of her regular classmates, she felt intimidated," the complaint reads.

The complaint also alleges the girl was not allowed to participate in physical activities while in the boys' classroom and was instead required to sit at a desk facing the wall.

The plaintiff alleges the girl's grades have dropped "substantially" since she was placed in the same-sex class.

One of the other daughters is legally blind and has trouble reading in the more dimly lit girls' classroom, according to the complaint.

The suit names the Wood County Board of Education; Law in his official capacity and as an individual; and Stephen Taylor, the principal of Van Devender Middle School, in his official capacity and as an individual.

The lawsuit also names Penny Tonelli Coleman, the former assistant principal at the school, in her official capacity and as an individual.

The plaintiff is seeking compensation to cover legal fees, Rogers said.

"But the main goal is to end this practice," she said.

A hearing has not yet been scheduled. It will go before U.S. District Judge Joseph Goodwin.         

Contact writer Paul Fallon at or 304-348-4817. Follow him at 


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