Federal Civil Rights Data Highlight Racial Disparities in Discipline as DeVos Mulls Guidance Rollback

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Black students are more likely to be arrested at school than their peers — a racial disparity that appears to be widening, according to highly anticipated federal civil rights data released Tuesday. Meanwhile, racial disparities in school discipline persist, even as districts across the country reduce their reliance on suspensions and expulsions.

Those are the top findings from this year’s Civil Rights Data Collection, released by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. The new data, released biennially, cover the 2015–16 school year and compile information from more than 17,000 school districts across the country serving 50.6 million students.

The new information comes as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos considers scrapping an Obama-era guidance document, released in 2014, that urged districts to reduce their reliance on exclusionary discipline. The document notified school leaders that disparate discipline rates, based on race or disability, could be the result of bias and therefore violate federal civil rights laws.

During the 2015–16 school year, black students represented 15 percent of K-12 school enrollment but 31 percent of law enforcement referrals and arrests, a 16 percent disparity. When the federal government last collected the data, during the 2013–14 school year, black students faced an 11-percentage-point disparity in arrests and law enforcement referrals. Meanwhile, Latino, Asian, and white students did not face disproportionate run-ins with police at school, a finding that remained consistent with the last Civil Rights Data Collection.

As schools across the country embrace reforms that turn away from punitive discipline like suspensions and expulsions, the reduction plays out in the new data. During the 2015–16 school year, roughly 2.7 million K-12 students were subjected to one or more out-of-school suspensions, about 100,000 fewer than in 2013–14.

However, racial disparities remain. Black boys and black girls each made up just 8 percent of enrolled students, but black boys made up 25 percent of students suspended at least once, and black girls accounted for another 14 percent. Black boys accounted for 23 percent of students expelled, as did 20 percent of black girls.

When the civil rights data were released under the Obama administration, the findings became central to the president’s education agenda. This time around, it appears the Trump administration has placed less emphasis on the new numbers. DeVos didn’t hold a call with reporters about the new data on Tuesday, opting instead to announce the findings through a brief press release.

“Protecting all students’ civil rights is at the core of the Department’s mission,” DeVos said in the release. “We are pleased to produce the CRDC in a way that it can be reviewed, analyzed, and utilized by local, state, and federal education leaders.”

In the past few months, a heated debate around disparate discipline has escalated in Washington. DeVos held a series of “listening sessions” with educators, school leaders, and advocates earlier this month to hear a range of perspectives on the Obama-era guidance. Proponents of the guidance argue that suspensions and expulsions unfairly drive students of color into the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Some of the guidance document’s fiercest critics, however, maintain that efforts to reduce student punishments have thrown schools into chaos.

As the listening sessions were underway, the Government Accountability Office, the government watchdog agency, analyzed federal education data and found that black students, boys, and disabled students are disproportionately disciplined compared with their white, nondisabled classmates.

The report also highlighted a myriad of challenges students with disabilities confront in their schools. Nationally, children with disabilities represent about 12 percent of the overall student population. However, they represent 28 percent of students who were referred to law enforcement or arrested, 26 percent of students who received at least one out-of-school suspension, and 24 percent of students who were expelled.

The latest data also highlight some schools’ reliance on restraint and seclusion to control school behavior, which overwhelmingly affected students with disabilities. In fact, 71 percent of restrained students and 66 percent of secluded students had a disability.

In recent months, the #MeToo movement has highlighted the prevalence of sexual misconduct in the workforce, and the latest Education Department data indicate that sex-based harassment and bullying permeate America’s K-12 schools. During the 2015–16 school year, schools recorded about 135,600 harassment or bullying allegations. Of those allegations, 41 percent centered on sexual harassment. Girls were more likely than boys to report harassment or bullying based on sex, and boys were more likely than girls to report bias based on race or disability.

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