SANFORD, Maine — The American Civil Liberties Union demanded Monday that the Sanford School Department eliminate four single-sex classrooms at Willard Elementary School that it called discriminatory.

Sanford Superintendent David Theoharides said the program is about giving students more choices concerning their educations, not fewer, and that the ACLU’s demands are based on out-of-context and incorrect information.

Theoharides said he was “shocked and disappointed” Monday morning when the ACLU of Maine distributed a press release taking aim at fifth- and sixth-grade classes at Willard Elementary School in which the students are all male or all female. Theoharides said the program — which students choose voluntarily and enroll in based on an application process — began three years ago with male- and female-specific classrooms in the sixth grade. Because of high interest among students and parents, the program was expanded to the fifth grade the next year.

“It’s a little disappointing to work with an outfit that you have been cooperating with and then have them put out a press release without even letting you know in advance,” said Theoharides. “This was a shock to me. I have not received anything from the ACLU.”

The American Civil Liberties Union on Monday launched an initiative at the national level which it calls the “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” campaign. The goal is to “end the practice of separating boys and girls based on discredited science rooted in outdated stereotypes,” according to the press release. In addition to its action against Sanford schools, the ACLU is gathering information about gender-based education programs from school districts in Massachusetts, Indiana, Idaho, Washington, Illinois, Alabama, Wisconsin, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.

“Sex segregation in public schools is not only illegal, but also unfair to both male and female students,” said Zachary Heiden, legal director of the ACLU of Maine Foundation. “Gender stereotypes are no basis for sound, constitutional education policy.”

In the press release, the ACLU described some of the activities in the Sanford classrooms and alleged that they are examples of discrimination. It contrasted a daily routine in the sixth-grade girls class of drinking hot chocolate while reading a newspaper with a program in the boys class that involves an exercise routine sponsored by the National Football League.

“Federal law and the Constitution require equal educational opportunities for male and female students,” said Shenna Bellows, executive director of the ACLU of Maine Foundation, in the press release. “Unfortunately, the program in Sanford includes exercise for boys but hot chocolate for girls, which only reinforces the stereotypes the school should be attempting to eradicate.”

Theoharides said that comparison between activities in the girls and boys classrooms was what upset him the most. He said both activities were chosen by the students and that academically speaking, the curriculums and requirements of the two classrooms are identical. In the girls class case cited by the ACLU, for example, it was a simple matter of the students asking for the same hot chocolate they saw their teacher drinking while reading the newspaper.

“It’s unfortunate that the ACLU took that out of context,” said Theoharides. “What bothers me is an allegation that’s not true at all. Those opportunities are available for all the students in all the classrooms. From the beginning, we said there had to be equal opportunities for both of the genders. This is purely just a different environment for their learning.”

Heiden said that although the intentions might be innocent, the segregated classrooms violate the equal protection clause in the U.S. Constitution.

“Think of it this way: If the school was segregating by race, no one would say in that situation that it is OK,” said Heiden. “We wouldn’t even say it’s OK if the students seemed to be enjoying it or getting a lot out of it. We don’t say that because it’s not constitutional.”

Heiden said the ACLU of Maine based its objections in Sanford on public records requests last fall that followed an article in the Portland Press Herald about the single-gender classrooms. He said a major concern was those records indicated the school system created the program partly because of research about different learning capacities among males and females.

“None of those stereotypes hold up to scientific scrutiny,” said Heiden.

Theoharides disputed Heiden’s claim and reiterated that the male and female students follow the same study plan.

“This is completely voluntary. There was never any promise or guarantee that this would academically change anything,” he said. “Socially for some students, we just thought they might fly better in these environments than if they were in a traditional classroom. Academically, we’re not seeing huge gains or losses in either direction. I think it would be a shame to have to change this program without first having a dialogue with the ACLU.”

David Connerty-Marin, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Education, said the department does not regulate nor track instances of educational programs that are designed for one gender or another.

“We don’t track it and schools are not required to report it to us or anyone else,” said Connerty-Marin. “We have no reason to believe that anything is going on that’s not supposed to be going on. As long as they’re providing choices to the families about classrooms, then it’s strictly a local decision.”

Connerty-Marin said he has heard of other Maine schools running similar programs, but didn’t have a definitive list. According to Bangor Daily News archives, there was a boys-only third-grade classroom at Camden-Rockport Elementary School this school year. According to that article, parents and students reacted so strongly to the concept that there was a waiting list shortly after it was announced.

Donna Lisnik, principal at Presque Isle High School, said that school has offered a girls-only freshman algebra class for about 20 years. Lisnik said the School Department was challenged about the program in the 1990s — and featured on at least two national newscasts — but prevailed after the department changed the class’s name to Algebra I with an Emphasis on Women in Mathematics. Though the course is open to any student, Lisnik said there never has been a male student enrolled in it.

“I saw those girls absolutely thrive,” said Lisnik, who used to teach the class. “We won because we weren’t taking anything away from anyone else. I’m a real supporter of single-sex classrooms. I think this is a wonderful thing they’re doing in Sanford. I don’t know why people have to go after something that’s no problem in the community.”

Heiden said that in many cases involving constitutional violations, school departments cede to the ACLU’s demands without involving the courts. However, Heiden said, the ACLU will resort to litigation in cases where schools refuse to make changes, though he clarified that the Sanford situation would require more study before such a step is taken.

“We did one public document request and have received one set of documents,” he said. “Our concerns are based on those documents. We have not gone into the classroom, but that was enough for us to really be concerned.”

Theoharides said the Sanford School Committee likely would discuss the issue at a regular meeting it had scheduled for Monday evening.

This isn’t the first time the School Department has been challenged on grounds of discrimination. Earlier this month the school committee voted to stop using the word “Redskins” for its school mascot after a challenge by the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission. Theoharides said a process is under way to identify a new mascot.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.