University of Cincinnati student alleges sex discrimination in lawsuit

CINCINNATI – A University of Cincinnati student alleges that the school committed sex discrimination when students in a physics lab were separated by gender.

In a federal lawsuit filed July 1, Casey Helmicki accuses the university of violating the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools.

Helmicki, a 19-year-old pre-med student, said she expected a tough course load but never expected the teaching assistant to separate the male and female students in her physics lab last August.

The TA, Mostafa El Demery, said “women shouldn’t be working with men in science,” according to Helmicki’s complaint.

Helmicki said she went to the professor in charge of the lab, Dr. Larry Bortner, only to have him back the TA.

“It was pretty shocking and surprising, and a little bit demoralizing, that sexual discrimination had been occurring the first week, and then again the second week was being allowed by someone of such authority,” Helmicki said.

Helmicki’s lawsuit states she transferred to another class because the practice didn’t stop.

Ken Petren, the dean of arts and sciences, said there is no policy segregating students by gender, but professors do have leeway when creating subgroups. However, the school did intervene and stopped the practice, which Petren said hasn’t been going on since August.

When Helmicki’s attorney contacted the university in February of this year, university officials responded by saying that they had changed methods for grouping students.

Helmicki’s attorney also sought $10,000 plus attorneys fees from the university. In their response, university officials wrote that Helmicki transferred by Sept. 2 – just a week after classes started for the semester – and it was “unclear … where a $10,000 damages figure could have been derived.”

An email purportedly written by a university official that fall praises Bortner for “being so intentional in how students learn” after another email, purportedly written by Bortner, explained that he did separate students in the labs by sex because:

“Physicists are predominantly male. To change this, we try to make the educational environment open to females. Studies have shown that females do better in small lab groups (three or four) that contain more females than males than more males than females. I train instructors who teach the labs and have told them to rearrange groups if there is one female with three males; if at all possible have all-female groups.”

In another email, university officials suggested Bortner make the sex-based grouping voluntary and explain the research behind it to students.

“From what you told me there is nothing inherently inequitable about the method you’re using to improve learning experiences,” an email states.

Helmicki said she didn’t think anyone “should have to go through what [she] went through, and [she’s] certain there are other people out there that have experienced the same thing in [her] physics lab.”

Petren reiterated that it was a misunderstanding and that separating students by sex is not university policy.

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