JohnnyBarnes

Johnny Barnes, former executive director of D.C.’s ACLU, says that the way to solve the problem is to open a public all-girls school as well. (Photo Courtesy of livingwiththelaw.com)

While District of Columbia school officials prepare for the opening of the public all-male high school this fall, the District’s chapter American Civil Liberties Union chapter is considering legal action to challenge the validity of the institution.

On May 9 the ACLU-DC released a 43-page report, “Leaving Girls Behind: An Analysis of Washington, D.C. ‘Empowering Males of Color’ (EMOC) Initiative” that was critical of the decision by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), with the support of D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, to open an all-male public high school and other all-male projects without any programs for girls. Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, the ACLU-DC executive director, is particularly uncomfortable with the all-male high school being funded by District taxpayers.

“Though the mayor and the DCPS are right to address the racial disparity gap in education, they chose to exclude girls from the solutions,” Hopkins-Maxwell said. “Extensive review of DCPS data and research provide no justification for this decision.”

Leaders of the ACLU’s national office in New York City stand behind Hopkins-Maxwell. “The ACLU would prefer that DCPS voluntarily extend EMOC’s educational opportunities to girls, but we are considering all options to ensure that girls are afforded equal opportunity within DCPS, including possible legal action,” Galen Sherwin, the senior staff attorney with the Women’s Rights Project-ACLU, said.

Bowser and Henderson announced on Jan. 21, 2015 the $20 million “Empowering Males of Color Initiative” that includes a component designed to improve the academic performance of males of color, more funds for schools that show academic progress for males of color, paid internships, mentoring opportunities, and, the most talked-about aspect, the all-male public high school that will open in the fall at the former Ronald Brown Middle School in Northeast to be led by principal Dr. Benjamin Williams. The plan was quickly criticized by D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), who questioned the constitutionality of a public single-sex school under Title IX, a law that mandates equitable school facilities for both genders and the Fourteenth Amendment that ensures equal protection under the law for all citizens.

Despite D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine (D) stating in an opinion that the initiative’s programs, particularly the high school, passes legal muster, Cheh still has her reservations.

“It’s heartbreaking that any child should be at risk of failure and I readily applaud those who want to help struggling students,” Cheh, who is a constitutional law scholar at the George Washington University School of Law, said. “However, in our eagerness to support efforts to help at-risk boys, we unintentionally left our at-risk girls behind. The government should move forward with its program for our boys but also provide equivalent opportunities for our girls.

“Anything short of full equality is illegal and wrong.”

However, DCPS is sticking by its plan for EMOC. “D.C. public schools works to provide world-class, differentiated programming so that all students are prepared for college, career, and beyond,” a spokeswoman for the school system said in a statement obtained by the AFRO. “By all students, we mean all backgrounds, all races, all genders, and all sexual orientations. The Empowering Males of Color initiative is exactly that-one avenue to engage our male students of color and support them toward graduation.”

The ACLU is seeking parents and guardians of District school children who believe the exclusion of girls is unfair or who are interested in having their daughters attend the Empowering Males High School or participate in other components of EMOC.

Johnny Barnes is a civil rights attorney in the District and is the former executive director of the city’s ACLU chapter. Barnes said he has mixed feelings on the EMOC and the all-male public high school. “Legally and constitutionally, the ACLU is right when you look at Title IX,” Barnes told the AFRO. “The courts aren’t likely to approve a public all-boys school without a public all-girls school in existence.”

However, Barnes said he understands the Bowser administration’s reasons for creating EMOC. “Personally, I think there is some benefit to an all-male school,” he said. “A boy can really develop being in a nurturing all-male learning environment. I think what needs to be done is that type of opportunity needs to be afforded to girls.”

Barnes said that he is a lawyer not an educator but thinks the matter can be settled without resorting to litigation. “The ACLU is looking at this issue through a legal lens,” he said. “The ACLU has the right to bring up these issues in the context of Title IX and the Fourteenth Amendment but I think there shouldn’t be a courtroom confrontation on this. Enlightened minds need to get together to figure out a way to help young men and young women fairly.”