Is it fair for the District to devote $20 million to an educational program designed to support minority boys—but not girls?

That’s the question at the heart of a report released Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital, which finds that the “Empowering Males of Color” initiative launched by Mayor Muriel Bowser last year “either officially or effectively” excludes girls.

That’s not a small issue in D.C., the ACLU says, as black and Latina girls “suffer from many of the same problems as boys of color, including poverty, a highly racially segregated school system, overpolicing, racial bias, and high incidence of family violence and trauma.”

EMOC aims to boost achievement and life outcomes among D.C.’s black and Latino youth, in part through a dedicated public school in Ward 7 set to open this year, mentorships, and targeted grants. Based on a Freedom of Information Act request, the ACLU finds that “the majority of the programs to be rolled out appear to be open only to boys.”

“This failure to ensure equal opportunity for girls of color, or even to consider their needs, makes little sense from a fairness standpoint, and creates significant legal vulnerability for EMOC’s programs,” the report states.

The ACLU says it attempted to schedule meetings with Bowser’s office and DCPS to discuss EMOC “without success.”

“Though the Mayor and DCPS are right to address the racial disparity gap in education, they chose to exclude girls from the solutions,” Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, ACLU-DC’s executive director, said in a statement. “Extensive review of DCPS data and research provide no justification for this decision. In fact, some of the sources cited by DCPS actually caution against single-sex programs.”

Officials have said the program will help narrow the achievement gap between minority and white students. But, as the report notes, black and Latina girls’ test scores and proficiency and graduation rates are not much higher than their male counterparts. Some statistics based on ACLU’s reading of the system’s own data:

  • “Regarding high school graduation rates, Black and Hispanic boys fare the worst (currently at 48% and 57% respectively) compared to their white counterparts (at 82%). Black and Hispanic girls are not far ahead (at 62% and 66% respectively). White girls’ rates of high school graduation are the highest, at 91%.
  • Black girls make up the second highest percentage of suspensions (35% of suspended students) after Black boys (58%)—the second largest of any other cohort by race and gender, including Hispanic boys (4%) or girls (2%).
  • Both Black girls and boys are absent at more than twice the rate of their white counterparts, missing an average of 22 days per year, greater than any other cohort. Hispanic boys miss 14 days per year, and Hispanic girls miss 13 days per year.
  • While Black boys enroll in AP courses at the lowest rate in DCPS (15%), the enrollment of Black girls is also low (24%), and below the rate for other cohorts including Hispanic boys (31%) and girls (37%). The rates for white boys and girls are 61% and 65%, respectively. The enrollment rate for Black girls is thus the second lowest of any cohort by race/gender.
  • The Math Proficiency Rates for Black girls, at 45%, are well below those of their white counterparts, at 93%. Black boys are at 37% and white boys at 91%. Hispanic Boys are at 55%, and Hispanic girls at 61%. Black girls are thus the second from the bottom in terms of math proficiency by race and gender.”

In a statement, DPCS says it seeks to provide “world-class, differentiated programming [for] all students.”

“By all students, we mean all backgrounds, all races, all genders, and all sexual orientations. We believe in supporting each students’ interests and needs by providing differentiated programming and opportunities that align to those interests and needs,” DCPS says. “The Empowering Males of Color initiative is exactly that—one avenue to engage our male students of color and support them toward graduation.”

City Desk had also reached out to a spokesperson for Bowser and will update this post when we hear back.

Last February, Ward 3 D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh argued in a letter to D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine that the initiative could violate constitutional principles of equal protection via Title IX and other statutes. Racine’s office ultimately determined that it did not, as it aims at an “important public objective.”

The ACLU goes on to conclude that the District should “immediately [make girls] eligible for participation in all of the opportunities provided under EMOC.” As for the all-boys high school specifically, the authors contend that girls should be permitted to enroll there for the coming school year, in effect requiring DCPS to reopen the lottery for it or permit another means of applying for any interested female students of color.

“Because spots should not be taken from boys who have already applied and been offered placement at the school, DCPS must permit girls to fill any open spots, and if necessary, create additional spots (and be prepared to dedicate additional resources as needed),” the report argues. “But in order to truly remedy the current inequity in opportunity, DCPS should go farther and revisit the decision to offer an all-boy’s school at all. That decision, which was taken in this case without adequate deliberation, public input, or research into efficacy, was legally unsupportable and should be abandoned.”

You can read the report below.

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Update 4:30 p.m.: In a statement provided to City Desk, Cheh calls for the District to “provide equivalent opportunities for our girls.”

It’s heartbreaking that any child should be at risk of failure and I readily applaud those who want to help struggling students. However, in our eagerness to support efforts to help at-risk boys, we unintentionally left our at-risk girls behind. Let’s look at this as an opportunity to expand our strategy and make a serious, committed investment in all District schoolchildren. 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.

Update 7 p.m.: “The Bowser Administration will continue to work with the community and stakeholders to do whatever we can to close the achievement gap for our young boys and men of color,” mayoral spokesperson Christina Harper said in a statement. “We will also work with our young girls on programs that will help them succeed in school and beyond. Opponents of this program present a false choice—we can design programs that benefit our young men while we help our young women.”

This post has been updated with Cheh’s complete statement.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery