Fun at the new school: Gender segregation in the cafeteria [UPDATED]

Recently, my family and I moved to a new state.  Overall, I’d say the move was the right choice for us, but little things keep creeping in as we adjust to being in a new place.  The most recent development has to do with the cafeteria at my kids’ school.  Over the weekend, my daughter informs us that she isn’t allowed to sit with the boys at lunch time.  I asked all kinds of questions.  Are you sure it’s a rule?  Maybe that’s something everyone just does naturally.  Did you ask about it?  What would happen if you sat next to a boy?  She didn’t have answers to these questions.  So I started asking, first her teacher, who was no help at all.  He couldn’t even say definitively that it was a rule.  Then I spoke to the principal, and needlesss to say, it’s all rather baffling.  

To summarize the conversation, I’d like to briefly state the reasons that the principal gave to me as to why this is a rule in the school.  I’ll follow those up with a short rebuttal (as if you guys even need it).

First, he told me that this was a long-standing rule that was in place before he became principal of the building.  This is almost laughable since longevity is never a reason to do anything.

Next, he told that, “It’s not my rule. The teachers put it in place a long time ago.” So not only does he not want to take responsibility for things that happen in his building, he’s more than willing to pass the buck.  Still, not a reason.  Moving on.

So after for what I’m sure was 10 minutes, we got to efficiency.  Ok, now I’m kind of with him except you can efficiently move children in and out of a cafeteria without segregating them.  As the system works now, children come into the cafeteria, get their lunch, and sit at an assigned table according to what class they’re in.  The tables are then divided in half by an imaginary line with girls on one side and boys on the other.  I’m fine with children sitting with their class so that teachers can move them quickly and efficiently in and out of the cafeteria, but it seems to me that if you want to be super efficient, you’d go the extra step and assign seats or have children file in based on the order they stood in line, not ask them to walk to different ends of the tables.  So it’s an extra and unnecessary requirement.

Then I got the argument that this segregated system minimizes disruptions.  So then I threw out the question: What disruptions were taking place prior to this rule that actually required the rule?  The principal could not answer that question.  So…um…if you can’t identify a behavior that the rule “fixed,” then the rule isn’t defensible.

Lastly, he pulls out the fact that kids self-segregate anyway.  He even went the extra mile with this one and cited a book called Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?  So this book is about why people, specifically people of color, self-segregate, and one of the author’s findings is that people do this to be with people who they feel the most comfortable.  For many, that means people who share the same racial identity.  Children indeed do the same thing with gender.  But not all people or children feel a strong pull to be with people of the same race or gender, and this rule makes that decision for the children instead of asking them what makes them comfortable or giving them the freedom to figure out in what social situations they are the most comfortable.  From a child development viewpoint, that’s an awful rule.

Putting aside the fact that there really isn’t a good reason to continue enforcing this rule, there are some reasons why this rule is just plain wrong.  

First, it perpetuates an idea that is still prevalent in some sectors of society that boys and girls behave better when separate.  This is an idea that any coeducational institution should reject.  In fact, I would argue that everyone should reject this idea.  There is no evidence that boys and girls are more distracted or misbehave when interacting together.  Even if you take into consideration the teen years and sexual attraction, adolescents are still likely to be preoccupied by sex even when they are not around the other gender.  What’s more, when you do this, you’re buying into the idea that people are not capable of controlling themselves even when interested in the other gender.  

This also brings up the question: What other archaic ideas about gender do you subscribe to and force students to subscribe to?  Do you think girls are bad at math and like to play with dolls?  Do you think boys are good at sports and are bad caregivers?  Do you also feel that girls who are interested in talking to boys are slutty?  Do you think that girls are responsible for the actions and reactions of boys if a boy is unable to control himself?  I can’t help but wonder.  

Another very important reason why gender segregation in the cafeteria is wrong is that it forces children to pick a gender identity.  What about children who don’t identify as a specific gender, are you assigning them one?  Children should have the freedom to be gender fluid (actually we all should).  Children shouldn’t be concerned about what it is that boys do or like or what it is that girls do or like.  Children should be concerned about what they like and how well they get along with their peers.  

Gender segregation offers solutions to non-existent problems or avoids fixing a problem all together.  Even worse, it creates additional problems.  How can an educator defend such a rule?  Currently, I have no solution.  The principal is not interested in changing it despite the fact that I communicated many of these same concerns.  I worry that the rule has gone unchallenged for so long that my children might have to take it upon themselves to challenge it.  The principal suggested something called the school counsel, a term I’m not familiar with, so I’ll have to look into that.  At the moment I’m still gaping at the mouth that gender segregation still exists in a public school.


After doing some research and thinking it over, I sent this email to one of the superintendents of the school district.  This person is also the Title IX Coordinator.

I am writing because I recently discovered that at lunch time (at the School) the children are told to sit at opposite ends of the table by gender.
When I asked Principal about this, he confirmed that it was a rule.  He gave me several reasons for this.  First, he used the longevity and “I didn’t make the rule” arguments which are never reasons to continue to do anything.  Then he said that the rule was in place to achieve efficiency in the cafeteria at lunch.  I argued then and am arguing now that you can achieve the same level of efficiency (moving children in and out quickly) without separating children by gender.  Then Principal had said that the rule was put in place to minimize disruptions.  When I asked what disruptions were taking place that would require school staff to start segregating the cafeteria, he had no response.  So it seems that there is indeed no good reason for this rule.
What’s more, I find the rule itself to be problematic.  First, it reinforces an idea that boys and girls need to be separate in order to behave appropriately.  Even if I were to buy in to this idea (which I wholeheartedly don’t), then it would be part of a coeducational institution’s mission to teach children of all genders to work together and behave appropriately when working together.  Second, is the school really in the business of telling kids who they should be making friends with?  My daughter brought this to my attention because she wanted to sit with a friend of hers who happened to be a boy.  Is she only allowed to be friends with girls?  And lastly, what about gender fluid children?  Are the staff at School assigning a gender identity to children?
Although this may seem minor, this practice raises some serious questions about the attitudes and intentions of the staff at School.  And while I realize that lifting this rule might not change where children sit all that much, it should still be each child’s choice.  Principal had recommended that I take this issue to something called school council.  I don’t know what that is and didn’t see anything on District’s website about it, so I am emailing you to ask for action on this matter.  You can email me or call me at xxx-xxx-xxxx.
I wrote that on a Saturday morning. On Monday afternoon, I got this response:
Thank you for the thoughtful email. I have spoken with the superintendent about this, and we have spoken with Principal who will be reconsidering how he manages the lunch room.
So yay!  I was surprised to get such a quick and decisive response.
I went to pick my children up that day and my daughter told me about this exciting announcement that the school was going to conduct a lunch time “experiment” and let children anywhere they wanted within their class-assigned tables.  My husband and I were shocked and excited.  I’m pretty sure that principal hates my guts now.  But he really doesn’t have to like me.
So moving on, my children were really excited about being able to sit by their friends and quickly identified who they would sit next to the following day.
On Tuesday, my children reported that it was an exciting lunch time.  They clearly weren’t the only kids excited about being able to sit next to friends of a different gender.  The person my son wanted to sit next to was, in a sense, taken, so he sat next to a different girl.  The person my daughter wanted to sit next was also taken but by his twin sister.  Apparently, this brother and sister have never sat next to each other at lunch time at the school.
Other than the excitement, I heard of no major disruptions to the routine.  I’m still waiting for some official communication to come from the school regarding the change and its permanency.

One thought on “Fun at the new school: Gender segregation in the cafeteria [UPDATED]

  1. Hey,

    Congratulations! I think it’s wonderful that you received such a positive response. I hope that the “experiment” goes well and the kids are allowed to sit with either gender from now on.


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