A program created to help fifth grade boys at Cherry Hill’s Clara Barton Elementary School has come under attack in a gender bias lawsuit that alleges it discriminated against girls who were not allowed to join.
The W.A.T.C.H., which stands for “Words, Actions, Thoughts, Character, and Heart,” was started several years ago to prepare students for middle school and teach them life skills. But it unfairly excluded girls, said attorney Kevin M. Costello, who filed a discrimination lawsuit on behalf of two sisters.
“We are not trying to take away leadership training,” said Costello. “We just want to make sure it is equally given.”
According to Costello, the boys’ program was started in 2013 or 2014 by the school’s principal, Sean Sweeney. A complaint Costello filed in 2018 in Superior Court in Camden alleges that his clients “were the victims of gender-based discrimination” because they were barred from joining.
Costello represents two former students identified in court documents only as C.G. and L.G. But last month, a Superior Court judge granted class-action status to the claim, which expands the potential plaintiff class to about 163 girls who attended Barton between 2014 and 2018, he said.
In a statement, the district denied any wrongdoing. A voluntary program for girls, Girls Incorporated or Girls Inc., was started in the fall of 2018, it said.
“While we respect the right of the plaintiffs to pursue their claims of alleged discrimination in Superior Court, those claims are unfounded,” the statement said.
The district said separate leadership training programs were implemented because boys and girls can have different social and emotional needs that are best addressed in a single-sex environment. Despite potentially costly litigation, the district said, it plans to continue to offer separate programs.
Barbara Wilson, a district spokesperson, declined further comment Monday.
According to the 13-page complaint, the boys-only program focused on leadership and communication skills and being good role models. It was mandatory for male students and “entirely closed to female students,” the complaint says.
“Once again, these needs are possessed by both male and female students, and such training is desired by, and desirable for, both male and female students,” the complaint says.
The Cherry Hill school system, one of the largest in the state, enrolls about 11,000 students and has nearly 1,700 employees.
One of the girls cited in the lawsuit shared her concerns about the program with the district’s director of pupil services and the Title IX/chief equity compliance officer, but nothing was done, the complaint says.
When some parents complained, the school created a “Girls Gab Club” to mollify female students, the complaint said. Participation was voluntary and did not offer leadership and role-model training, it said.
Even the name of the club, the complaint contends, “implies a ‘less than’ view of how females communicate” and implies that females simply “gab” with each other.
Costello contends the separate programs for boys and girls are not equal under state anti-discrimination laws. The girls’ program has fewer resources and speakers, the complaint says, and as a result, girls allegedly have suffered losses from the missed opportunities in the W.A.T.C.H. program.
“We are of the belief that a separate program is possibly not equal at all,” Costello said. His clients are now in middle school and high school. The district said no other students have complained about the leadership programs.