Boys and girls at a Tyler, Texas, middle school can look at each other, but they can’t touch.
Administrators at Stewart Middle School began segregating the two sexes May 5 to quell persistent incidents of inappropriate contact, including sexual assaults and indecent exposure.
In classes and the cafeteria, the school’s 500 boys and girls are seated on opposite sides of the room. They are segregated in the hallways as well.
The policy seems to be working, Superintendent Donald Gentry of the 16,500-student Tyler district said last week.
“The students are somewhat embarrassed because a lot of the kids feel labeled, but the teachers feel that this has improved things,” he said.
But Jack Berckemeyer, the director of member and affiliate services at the National Middle School Association in Columbus, Ohio, voiced caution. “It may be prudent, it may not,” he said said of the policy. “This could cause tension with the kids, because they are social beings.”
Myrtle Middle School in Irvington, N.J., instituted separate classes for boys and girls in 1994 in part to improve discipline. But it later abandoned the experiment because of legal concerns.
Some public schools offer separate math and science classes for boys and girls, and California began setting up “single-gender academies” within some existing middle schools last fall. (” Calif. Opens Single-Sex Academies,” Sept. 10, 1997.)
Among the incidents that spurred the policy at Stewart Middle School was the sexual assault of a girl by four boys during a physical education class last October. The boys were sentenced in January to a private community juvenile program.
Since then, at least two other boys have been expelled from the campus for fondling and assaulting girls, Mr. Gentry said.
Before their decision to separate the sexes, school officials had shown students videos on sexual harassment and invited speakers to come to the school to address the topic. But the measures didn’t help, Mr. Gentry said.
Since implementing the separation, no such incidents have been reported, and only one parent has come forward to complain about the policy, he said.
The superintendent predicted that the boys and girls will be together again by the start of next school year. “I don’t anticipate that this [separation] will continue,” Mr. Gentry said.
Janice Weinman, the executive director of the American Association of University Women, sees the policy as a “Band-Aid” approach.
“It is not getting at the fundamental issues” of sexual harassment in schools, Ms. Weinman said.
In 1993, the Washington-based AAUW released a study concluding that sexual harassment was pervasive in schools.
The report, “Hostile Highways,” said that most such harassment was student-on-student and that it occurred most often in classrooms and hallways.
It said that 85 percent of all girls surveyed had been sexually harassed, as well as 76 percent of boys.
The AAUW considered both physical and nonphysical forms of harassment; the latter included sexual comments and jokes.
“Few schools have sexual-harassment policies,” said Ms. Weinman, adding that many schools that do have them are not communicating them to students.
A version of this article appeared in the May 20, 1998 edition of Education Week as Middle School Keeps Boys and Girls Apart To Enforce Discipline