Joseph Madill cracked a lopsided grin and messed his hair as he pondered the question.
What does it feel like when his twin sister, Meredith, isn’t with himâ¢
“When she’s not there, I get flutterflies, feel like I just ate a ton of Atomic Bombs and think that I might blow up,” said Madill, 8, of Ross.
It’s a feeling many twins experience during adolescence — a stomach-clenching anxiety that can be triggered if they’re separated at school, a common practice at many institutions.
But starting this fall in Pennsylvania, parents of multibirths can choose to place their children in the same classrooms if they are in the same grade level and school. The measure, dubbed the “twins law,” was slipped into the education section of the state budget, which passed July 4.
With the weight of recent scientific evidence that challenges long-held educational notions that twins can’t develop into individuals without separation — and a burgeoning grassroots movement of multibirth parents — a growing number of states are adopting policies to ensure twins can stay together in classrooms if they choose.
“Those first formidable years are the ones when (being separated) affects them the most,” said Victoria Zimmerman of Berks County, the Pennsylvania twin law campaign director. “If you can keep them together for those years, then the twins can fit in with the school and feel more at ease.”
There were 5,382 multibirths in Pennsylvania in 2006, a 26 percent increase since 1991 when there were 4,241 multibirths, according to the state Department of Health. During the same 15-year span, the number of single births decreased 12 percent from 163,471 to 143,324. In Allegheny County, 505 multibirths occurred in 2006, the last year for which statistics are available.
Six other states — Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Texas — have passed laws allowing parents to keep children together in classrooms. Other states are mulling similar measures, said Kathy Dolan of New York City, founder of twinslaw.com.
“I had already accepted the fact that they were going to be separated,” said Laura McCurdy, mother of twin 4-year-old girls who soon will start at Union Memorial Elementary School in New Castle. “We’re all so excited they can stay together now.”
Twins who are separated from each other between ages 5 and 7 — when children first enter schooling — are more likely to develop social problems and consistently score lower on reading tests, a 2004 University of Wisconsin study found.
Another study published in the Twin Research and Human Genetics journal in 2005 found that separated twins became bullies in the classroom more frequently than those not separated.
“The point is that separating them can have adverse effects, and does in many cases,” said Nancy Segal, a leading twin researcher and a professor of psychology at California State University at Fullerton. “They’re focused on the other and constantly thinking about them.”
Nearly 40 years later, Rep. Karen Beyer, a Lehigh County Republican, said she vividly remembers her classroom separation from her twin, Kevin Brown. Beyer said she felt lost and disillusioned without him.
“There is no legitimate reason to separate them,” said Beyer, who co-sponsored the measure. “There are a lot of things in the school system that are antiquated and should be changed. The laws are old, outdated and don’t make a lot of sense.”
Across the state, some school districts said it was their “philosophy” to place twins in different classrooms to cultivate individualism.
“I don’t think (separating twins) is outdated at all,” said Linda O’Neill, a principal in the Union Area School District, which has separated twins. “Most of the time, parents don’t want their kids together. We just think they blossom a bit better by themselves and make new friends.”
The so-called “twins law” won’t affect Pittsburgh Public Schools much, officials said. The district’s practice has been to keep the decision with the parents, said Kaye Cupples, recently retired executive director of student services.
Some Allegheny County school districts say the “twins law,” which ensures twins can stay together in classrooms, won’t affect their policies and suggest such a law is unnecessary.
“I just wondered why they needed to make a law,” said Nancy Rose Aloi, assistant superintendent of Bethel Park School District. “I have no idea what was behind this or why.”
She said if parents ask the district to keep their kids together, the wish will be honored. But without such a request, twins would be separated to “give the kids independence.”
Moon Area School District now will ask parents whether they want their twins separated, instead of waiting for parents to make a request, said Superintendent Donna Milanovich.
The same goes for Avonworth School District.
“We try to do what we feel is best for the situation, for the kids and the parents’ needs,” said Superintendent Valerie McDonald.