Ed Dept civil rights data shows restraint, seclusion, sexual assault on the rise

A bevy of statistics about school enrollment, discipline practices, academic offerings and more from the 2017-18 school year was released by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights as part of the biennial Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC).

The self-reported collection from 17,604 public school districts and 97,632 public schools and educational programs includes up to 1,700 data points — often broken down by race, gender, disability status and other demographics — is used by school, district and state education systems to measure trends and plan for improvements.

The CRDC includes all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. State and national estimations for the 2017-18 school year are not yet available on the CRDC searchable database.

Here, we summarize four major takeaways from this collection.

Students with disabilities are disproportionately restrained and secluded

In an issue brief released alongside the 2017-18 CRDC, the Education Department noted 101,990 students nationwide were subjected to restraint or seclusion during that school year. Of those students restrained, 78% were students with disabilities. Of those secluded, 77% were students with disabilities.

Although White students with disabilities were physically restrained at a much higher rate, 26% of the students with disabilities who were physically restrained were Black, even though they consisted of 18% of the special education student population.

Restraint and seclusion rates also are increasing. The 2015-16 national data set shows 71% of restrained students and 66% of secluded students had disabilities. Educators and disability advocates have raised concerns about disproportionate and inappropriate use of restraint and seclusion.

“In the context of COVID-19, which has had an inordinate impact on students with disabilities, it is even more important to act to reverse disciplinary practices that perpetuate educational inequity,” said Lauren Morando Rhim, co-founder and executive director of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, in a statement.

There are no federal laws limiting the use of restraint and seclusion in schools, although several states recently approved or considered legislation that would limit its use and add procedures for reporting incidents, according to the Education Commission of the States.

In 2019, the education department announced an initiative to examine inappropriate use of restraint and seclusion through data quality checks, monitoring and technical assistance.

K-12 sexual violence has increased 55%

There were 14,938 of sexual violence in schools in 2017-18 compared to 9,649 in 2015-16, representing a 55% increase, according to an issue brief from the education department. Sexual violence includes incidents of rape or attempted rape and sexual assault. Incidents of rape or attempted rape jumped by 99% from 2015-16 to 2017-18, the CRDC shows.

It’s difficult to say why sexual violence incidents increased that much over a two-year period. It could be due to better reporting efforts, said Miriam Rollin, director of the Education Civil Rights Alliance, convened by the National Center for Youth Law. But, she added, “It’s hard to believe there’s purely an incident increase when we have numbers that stunning.”

The Education Department disaggregated sexual violence data by state and said the states and territories with the highest incidents of sexual assaults per 1,000 students includes Nevada, Georgia and Hawaii. States with the lowest number of incidents include South Dakota, Florida and Puerto Rico.

Earlier this year, the department issued final regulations for Title IX regarding legal obligations for schools to respond, report and investigate allegations of sexual harassment, including sexual assault.

The Trump administration said the rule, which went into effect Aug. 14, holds schools more accountable for promptly responding to allegations, as well as offering support and protection for both those who say they are victims of assault and those being accused. Several Democratic state attorneys general, civil rights advocacy groups and education administration organizations, however, criticized the rule, saying it weakens protections for victims of sexual assault and that the timing of the rule burdens schools as they respond to the pandemic.

Efforts to improve data quality underway

In a push to receive and report more accurate data, the Education Department has, over the last few years, put quality measures in place that allow statistical outliers to be identified more easily and provide districts opportunities to amend inaccurate data.

For example, 2015-16 data on the restraint and seclusion of students had misreporting from districts of all sizes, according to an April 2020 report from the Government Accountability Office. When GAO took a targeted look at 30 of the country’s largest school districts, it found suspected patterns of underreporting in 13, in addition to the 10 that reported zero for the 2015-16 school year.

To help pinpoint anomalies, the Education Department lowered the district-level student enrollment threshold that would flag potentially erroneous restraint and seclusion reporting for the 2017-18 CRDC data collection, the GAO reported. OCR and the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services also is providing technical assistance and is working with individual school districts regarding investigations or compliance reviews.

Additionally, post-collection data quality checks looked for outliers for individual data elements and where significant value changes in individual data elements between the 2015-16 and 2017-18 data collections occurred, according to the issue brief on restraint and seclusion.

OCR also has partnered with the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) to validate data, and to review and revise data quality procedures. In a statement, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said, “While self-reported data poses challenges, the quality assurance measures we have put into place help make this data more reliable than ever before.”

More work is needed, however, say civil rights advocates and researchers.

For example, the GAO report pointed out that the revised rule to lower the threshold for detecting potential erroneous restraint and seclusion data would separate the reporting of students with and without disabilities. That creates the potential scenario where only three districts in the country (Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City) would meet the threshold of having at least 50,000 students with disabilities and would report zero incidences of restraint or seclusion to be detected for erroneous reporting, the GAO report said.

Dan Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, said he’s concerned about questionable or missing data for school-based arrests of students, especially as school systems are trying to make decisions about police presence in schools. For example, the country’s largest school system — New York City — reported zero arrests for students with and without disabilities, according to the CRDC.

State education agencies also aren’t posting school-based arrest information on their websites, Losen said. “My concern is that you have much more coordination when high schools talk to police about student behaviors but we don’t see that data,” Losen said.

Pandemic is impacting the next scheduled collection

Due to the impact of the novel coronavirus, the Education Department is proposing shifting the 2019-20 collection to the 2020-21 school year, according to a notice published on Regulations.gov July 7. If the data collection timing is altered, it will most likely delay the release of the data, which was originally scheduled for 2022. The final schedule for the next data collection is still being developed.

The absence of data and the reporting of inaccurate data worry civil rights advocates. “How can you solve a problem if you don’t know the data,” Rollin said.

She advises schools and districts to review the data they do collect because analysis of worrisome trends is essential for creating policies for improvement. “Schools should be a sanctuary of learning,” Rollin said. “The big picture is that our schools are not safe or healthy environments for all our kids, especially our marginalized kids.”

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