LANSING – The Lansing School District’s decision to create gender-based classrooms at Willow Elementary and its response to a student who reported being sexually assaulted at Eastern High School have led to separate federal investigations.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation into sexual violence within the district on Sept. 1 and the use of gender-based classrooms June 30, a department spokesman confirmed Monday.
Karen Truszkowski, the attorney of a former student who reported being sexually assaulted at Eastern High School in 2015, said she filed a Title IX complaint on behalf of her client. The student, who was underage at the time of the incident, has also filed a federal Civil Rights lawsuit, claiming she was denied equal access to education and protection. She is not named in the lawsuit.
Truszkowski also represents another former Eastern student who is suing the district and staff after being assaulted by another student on school property in September 2014. Her attacker, Edward “E.J.” Jackson, was sentenced to seven to 15 years in prison after pleading no contest to third-degree criminal sexual conduct charge in Ingham County Circuit Court in February 2015.
The district is aware of the investigations and is fully cooperating, said Lansing School District spokesman Bob Kolt. He reaffirmed the district’s decision not to comment on ongoing lawsuits filed by former students alleging Title IX violations.
Federal officials are also in the midst of determining whether single-gender classrooms at Willow Elementary comply with Title IX, a federal law that bars discrimination based on gender.
Boys and girls at Willow began attending separate core classes last fall. The plan was an effort to improve the district’s academics after being designated a priority school in 2014. The state’s School Reform Office approved a plan to turn Willow into an all-boys school in January 2015, but the district changed course and went with gender-based classrooms instead, said Michigan Department of Education spokesman Bill DiSessa. The requirements to operate a boys-only school and a school with gender-based classes are different, he added. The federal investigation began shortly after the district missed an April 1 deadline to amend its proposal for gender-based classes at Willow, DiSessa said.
Lansing Superintendent Yvonne Caamal Canul said DiSessa’s sequence of events conflicted with what the district was told. She added that the district didn’t know there were different requirements and applications for gender-based classrooms and single-gender schools when it sought state approval.
The ACLU of Michigan said it opposed the idea of gender-based classes because it could reinforce negative stereotypes and attitudes. ACLU officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Willow third-graders fared worse on the 2015-16 M-STEP than the previous year, with 60% not proficient in math compared to 25% in 2014-15.
“In spite of the recent achievement test data, Willow showed remarkable improvement between 2013-14 and 2014-15,” Caamal Canul wrote in an email. “Our plan is to stay with gender-based classrooms.”
In a letter sent to parents in March, Willow Principal Steven Lonzo touted student improvements in non-tested areas such as vocabulary among first-graders.
Federal officials would not disclose who filed the complaint that prompted the investigation, citing its ongoing nature. Several Title IX requirements exist for maintaining single-gender classrooms, including that enrollment is completely voluntary and that school officials provide an equal learning environment for both genders.
Both investigations are ongoing. More than a dozen districts across Michigan are under federal investigation for possible Title IX violations ranging from grievance procedures to sexual harassment. Title IX violations could impact the amount of federal funding school districts receive.