The Government Accountability Office has a new report titled "Education Should Take Immediate Action to Address Inaccuracies in Federal Restraint and Seclusion Data." Highlights:
GAOs' review found that data the Department of Education (Education) uses in its enforcement of civil rights laws does not accurately or completely reflect all incidents of restraint and seclusion of public school students. Education has stated that restraint and seclusion should only be used when a child's behavior poses imminent danger of serious physical harm to self or others. GAO's review of the most recent Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), school year 2015-16, found that 70 percent of the more than 17,000 school districts in the U.S. reported zero incidents of restraint and zero incidents of seclusion. However, GAO's analysis and documents from Education showed substantial evidence that nine of the 30 largest districts (those with more than 100,000 students) inaccurately reported zeros when they actually had incidents or did not have the data. Moreover, Education officials have said very large districts are likely to have incidents of restraint and seclusion. For example, Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, which has about 186,000 students, reported zero incidents in school year 2015-16 but recently acknowledged that it had over 1,600 incidents of restraint or seclusion in school year 2017-18.
Documents from Education also showed that several of the very largest school districts reporting zero incidents were instead not collecting data on restraint and seclusion for the CRDC at all, contrary to Education's guidance and policy. While Education requires districts to provide plans for collecting data that are missing or incomplete, GAO found that several of the largest districts reporting zero either did not provide plans or provided incomplete plans. These districts were able to bypass the CRDC system requirement to submit plans because they reported zero incidents instead of leaving the fields blank to indicate the data were missing. Education created a tip sheet to instruct districts on when to report zeros and how to report that data are not available, but the tip sheet is difficult to find on the CRDC website and not available on the screen where districts submit data. Further, Education has not corrected the data for the nine largest districts that inaccurately reported zero restraints and seclusions.
While it is difficult to know the full extent of underreporting, the problems that GAO found with the largest districts reporting zero incidents when in fact the data were missing raise questions as to whether other school districts correctly reported zero incidents of restraint and seclusion. GAO found documents from Education that indicated other, smaller districts also might have misreported zeroes.
Education describes its civil rights data as a key part of its enforcement strategy to protect students from discrimination and ensure equal access to education. Without adequate systems in place to ensure the accurate, complete reporting of restraint and seclusion data, districts may continue to erroneously report zero incidents and Education may be hindered in its enforcement of civil rights laws.