White House and Education Department initiatives are gathering more data from schools in a hunt for civil-rights violations against minority and special education students.
Starting this year, every public school and district nationwide must report a spectrum of civil-rights-related data directly to the federal government, according to the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights.
The data includes the number of allegations of bullying on the basis of sexual orientation or religion, the number of students enrolled in distance-learning programs, and the number of full-time psychologists and social workers on staff.
Although the government has collected civil-rights data for decades, this is the first year the government is mandating schools to report certain information.
Most of the data, however, is related to student punishment, including in-school and out-of-school suspensions, which education and criminal justice experts say is a growing problem.
Statewide, 2013-14 discipline figures from the Texas Education Agency suggest that minority students are disciplined at higher rates. Of the state’s 674,374 black students, 120,388 (17.85 percent) received in-school suspensions. Of the state’s 1,551,502 Anglo students, 122,047 (7.87 percent) received in-school suspensions.
The numbers are similar in some Tarrant County districts: In Arlington, 18.83 percent of 18,044 black students received in-school suspensions, compared with 9.99 percent of 30,534 Hispanic students and 8.32 percent of 16,352 Anglo students.
In Fort Worth, the numbers for in-school suspensions were: blacks, 13.36 percent of 21,591 students; Hispanics, 7.36 percent of 56,003 students; and Anglos , 5.33 percent of 10,776 students.
17.85 percent of the state’s 674,374 black students received in-school suspensions in 2013-14.
Statewide and local statistics on the suspension of special education students are also higher than the general student population. Of the state’s 550,555 special education students, 14.54 percent received in-school suspensions in 2013-14, compared with 9.91 percent of all students.
All figures can include individual students who were suspended more than once.
“… We, and most of the country, have much work to do to address disproportionality of African-American student suspensions, relative to their numbers in the district as a whole,” Clint Bond, a spokesman for the Fort Worth school district, said in an email response.
School suspensions have been rising for years as zero-tolerance policies — created in response to school shootings and other violence — were put in place in the name of safety and keeping order in the classroom.
... We, and most of the country, have much work to do to address disproportionality of African-American student suspensions, relative to their numbers in the district as a whole.
Clint Bond, spokesman for the Fort Worth school district
But critics say students are too often punished harshly for minor infractions. And while racial disparities exist, any student can have his or her their life upended by punishment policies.
Ahmed Mohamed, 14, a Muslim student in Irving, created a national media firestorm when he recently brought a “homemade clock” to MacArthur High School. A teacher at the school thought the device looked like a bomb and Mohamed was handcuffed and taken into police custody and suspended, although “hoax bomb” charges were quickly dropped.
Ahmed later withdrew from the school.
Even figures of speech are taken literally in the zero-tolerance climate.
Statewide, a total of 1,463 Texas students were cited for making a terrorist threat during the 2013-14 school year, according to figures from the Texas Education Agency.
1,463 Texas students were cited for making a terrorist threat in the 2013-14 school year.
A chain reaction
Suspensions and other forms of discipline can have lasting effects, experts say.
Students are branded as troublemakers, set up for failure or funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline, experts say. The school-to-prison pipeline is defined as conditions that propel students from the classroom and into either the juvenile or criminal justice systems.
Students enter the prison system directly and indirectly, said Morgan Craven, an attorney and director for the school-to-prison pipeline project at the Austin-based nonprofit Texas Appleseed.
“One way that is super direct is when kids in Texas and other places are referred to juvenile justice, or a criminal court,” Craven said.
For example, students might be issued tickets for disrupting a class, truancy or something much less serious.
“A disruption can be for something as ridiculous as making a fart sound in class,” she said.
A disruption can be for something as ridiculous as making a fart sound in class.
Morgan Craven, attorney for the Texas Appleseed project
There’s also a chance of being labeled a troublemaker and being alienated from classmates, teachers and administrators, Craven said. A “vast majority” of punishments are based on perception, not whether something actually happened, she added.
“It’s a teacher, administrator or the police feeling that something happened,” Craven said. “That’s where we see a lot of disproportionality.”
It also increases the chances that a student will drop out.
“Many studies have found that suspensions, expulsions, and grade retention increase the likelihood of dropping out of school,” Craven said. “Kids disengage because who wants to participate in a system where you are punished unfairly and no one wants to figure out what’s really going on.”
Intervention and prevention
In the name of security, students can face surveillance cameras, drug dog searches and armed officers at school. Some schools enlist the police or juvenile services to work directly with students.
In the Fort Worth district, a representative from Tarrant County Juvenile Services works with certified teachers and behavior specialists in the Insights program, an elementary alternative school for third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students with behavioral problems. The program is housed in a separate area of De Zavala Elementary School. It serves elementary school students across the district.
“It’s more of an intervention and prevention program,” said Shequita Burrell of Tarrant County Juvenile Services, who has worked with Insights since April 2012. “The students I work with here do not have referrals to my department. We’re trying to catch them before they come.”
Persistent misbehavior — being disrespectful in class, fighting, bringing prohibiteds item to school (such as weapons or drugs), bullying and actions considered sexual harassment — are just a few of the ways students can land in the system, Burrell said.
“Referrals could be for making what they consider to be a felony terroristic threat,” said Burrell. “For example, saying, ‘I’ll just blow up the place.’ ”
Referrals could be for making what they consider to be a felony terroristic threat.
Shequita Burrell of Tarrant County Juvenile Services
Many families and parents don’t realize that students as young as 10 are referred to Juvenile Servicesm, Burrell said.
Numbers in the Insights program are usually small, accounting for up to a dozen or students at any given time. Students stay in the program for up to 30 days and are then transferred back to their home school, Burrell said.
In the affluent Carroll school district, every campus — including elementary schools — is staffed with an officer from the Southlake Police Department. The school resource officers are there to provide protection and work with students, parents, administrators and other school staff, said Sgt. John Stokes, who oversees the program.
Among other things, the resource officers are trained to coach students on preventing drug and alcohol abuse. Students are also mentored on preventing behavior that could lead to juvenile crime.
The school resource officers also monitor students for changes in behavior.
“If they see someone who may need some help, they will go to them and encourage them as a way to boost morale,” Stokes said. “Also in the basic school resource officer that SROs go to, they’re taught how to look for signs of depression. And there are so many categories within that.”
School resource officers also work with special needs students and those with behavioral issues.
“The SROs go inside the classroom of special needs students and interact with them,” Stokes said. “You get to know what pushes them or what may cause them to have a reaction. We are already aware of the different behavioral patterns.”
Mandating schools to report
Under the new federal Civil Rights initiative, schools are required to report the number of guards or police officers on campus. Also being reported are school-related arrests, referrals to law enforcement, expulsions, enrollment in advanced courses, and victims and perpetrators of bullying, among others. The information is searchable through an online federal database.
Although the government has collected Civil Rights data for decades, this year marks the first year the government is mandating schools to report certain information.
The government hails its new reporting methods as a way to expose excessive discipline and to open equal access to education programs. But some call it an over-reach of federal authority.
While redesigning collection methods over the past couple of years, the government gathered comments from educators and the public. A handful of commenters “questioned the relationship between some data elements and civil rights.” Others called it an overreach of the agency’s authority, according to the documents.
It all comes at a time when racism is a hotly-debated issue. Tragic shootings and excessive force by police sparked the national Black Lives Matter movement and, in response, the Back the Blue movement.
The data being sought includes the number of allegations of bullying on the basis of sexual orientation or religion, the number of students enrolled in distance learning programs and the number of students suspended.
In a written statement, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) for the U.S. Department of Education said the data is being collected to expose access limitations and other educational barriers. The government points to federal laws that allow the collection of Civil Rights data from K-12 schools and colleges.
“We believe that this information is valuable to every school and to every parent of a child in that school,” the OCR stated in an email response. “In addition, not all disparities illuminated are civil rights violations. The Office for Civil Rights does not rely on [civil-rights] data alone in determining whether to investigate an institution or whether there has been a violation of the law.”
Discipline data might be used — at least in part — to investigate a school or district. A “variety of methods” are used to determine if a school or district is out of compliance. Investigations can include data requests, interviews and site visits, according to the OCR.
Statewide, the OCR division currently has “30 investigations open in Texas that involve the issues of discrimination in the administration of discipline,” an OCR spokesman stated in an email.
Creating more work for districts
As is often the case with new federal mandates, some schools are using more manpower to input and research the discipline data.
“The reporting requirements have caused additional work for our staff,” said Mark Thomas, a spokesman for the Birdville school district. “Instead of the being able to submit a single report from the data management systems, some of the data requested requires additional research and must be hand-entered. Approximately 60 percent of the data is generated from our data management systems, the other 40 percent requires additional staff time.”
The reporting requirements have caused additional work for our staff.
Mark Thomas, spokesman for the Birdville school district
School leaders, student advocates and activists see pluses and minuses in making discipline figures more public and transparent. One possible outcome is an increase in lawsuits and formal complaints against schools and districts.
Right now it’s too early to tell how it will all play out, said Melissa Scherer, a Fort Worth attorney who specializes in Texas schools’ special education issues.
“That’s something that remains to be seen,” Scherer said. “I’m not against there being more transparency in discipline figures.”
Reasons for special education students sometimes being disciplined more frequently are very complex, she said.
“A lot of teachers lack the resources to deal with different kinds of behavior,” Scherer said. “Although there are some, I’ve never seen a teacher who deliberately wanted to hurt a student.”
Kris Savage, president of the Fort Worth ISD Council of PTAs, said more dialog is needed on student discipline, along with more involvement from parents.
Savage said one of her concerns is how suspending students and other practices impacts student performance in school. For example, she cited an unnamed elementary school where students who don’t complete their class work on time are asked to line up along a wall outside during recess.
“I don’t see how that helps solve the problem,” Savage said.
New civil-rights data collected
Starting this year, under the Education Department’s Civil Rights Data Collection project, the information being collected includes:
▪ Number of school days missed by students who received out-of-school suspensions.
▪ Number of violent and serious crimes. Number of students transferred for disciplinary reasons to alternative or regular schools.
▪ Number of instances of corporal punishment for students in preschool through grade 12.
▪ Number of preschool students who received corporal punishment.
▪ Number of allegations of harassment or bullying on the basis of sexual orientation or religion.
▪ Justice facility item regarding duration of student participation in educational program.
▪ Number of students enrolled in any distance education courses, or dual enrollment/dual credit programs, and number of students who participate in a credit recovery program.
▪ Number of full-time equivalent positions for psychologists, social workers, nurses, security guards and sworn law officers.
▪ School-level expenditures and number of FTEs for teachers, instructional aides, support staff and administrative staff.
▪ Number of current teachers employed at the school, and number of teachers also employed at the school in prior year.
Source: Education Department