School Climate & Safety

Discipline Disparities Grow for Students of Color, New Federal Data Show

By Sarah D. Sparks & Alyson Klein — April 24, 2018 | Updated: April 24, 2018 10 min read
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Clarification: This story has been updated to remove a data point on reported homicides that Education Week is still analyzing.

At a time when the Trump administration is contemplating rolling back discipline guidance with protections for vulnerable groups, new federal data find continuing disparities in how students of color and those with disabilities are disciplined and in the opportunities they get in schools.

The U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday released two reports highlighting statistics from the 2015-16 school year’s civil rights data collection on school safety and discipline and on students’ access to science and math courses. The department released the full data, which provides an array of civil rights information for 50.6 million students attending more than 96,300 schools nationwide.

The new data—the most recent since information on the 2013-14 school year—come as the department considers significant changes in how its office for civil rights guides districts and handles complaints around equity in education, such as rolling back Obama-administration guidance for states on analyzing disproportionate use of suspensions and expulsions.

Among the most striking findings: The report notes a significant increase in disparities in arrests and referrals to police for black students, and students with disabilities remain vastly over-represented among students involved in police interactions.

School Safety

While a series of fatal school shootings this year has sparked protests and debates about gun violence and school safety, the first federal education data suggest shooting incidents remain a rarity on school grounds. Fewer than 240 schools—or one-fifth of 1 percent of the more than 96,300 schools surveyed—reported at least one school-related shooting.

See Also

4 Things to Know About Ed. Dept.'s Massive Civil Rights Database

Among serious crimes on campus, more than a million involved fights, robberies, or threats with no weapon at all, compared to a little more than 34,000 nationwide that included a weapon, less than a third of which involved guns or explosives. But the majority of public schools—55 percent—reported no serious incidents in 2015-16, according to an Education Week Research Center analysis.

In fact, there were nearly as many reported rapes and sexual assaults at schools in 2015-16 as gun or explosive-related crimes—more than 11,000 each—and more than 9,000 of the gun-related crimes involved possession or threats.

The Education Department did not detail the characteristics of students targeted or disciplined for serious crimes, but it did show continuing inequality in which students are disciplined in ways that take them out of school—in spite of broad state and district efforts to reduce those disparities.

For example, schools suspended 2.7 million students out of school in 2015-16, roughly 100,000 fewer than were suspended in 2013-14. Yet black boys still made up 25 percent of all students suspended out of school at least once in 2015-16, and black girls accounted for another 14 percent, even though they each only accounted for 8 percent of all students. Those are about the same discipline gaps black students faced five years ago. By contrast, white boys and girls made up greater shares of overall enrollment, but smaller proportions of all students suspended at least once.

Similarly, black students made up 15 percent of all students in 2015-16, but 31 percent of those arrested or referred to police—a disparity that has grown by 5 percentage points since 2013-14. Students with disabilities represented 12 percent of the overall student enrollment and 28 percent of police-involved students in 2015-16.

Enlarge chart.

“Schools are places where there’s tremendous amounts of discretion with regard to when to call law enforcement. As a result, we end up with folks who fear black kids, fear for their physical safety, fear that they can’t control their class, or quite frankly, contempt [for black children],” said Phillip Goff, the president of the Center for Policing Equity at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “Anytime you have high levels of fear and high levels of discretion, you’re going to end up with high levels of disparity.”

Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, called the data “deeply disturbing” and said it helped make the case for keeping Obama-era guidance that seeks to cut down on discriminatory discipline practices.

On the other hand, Max Eden, a senior fellow at the right-leaning Manhattan Institute, who is skeptical of the Obama administration’s discipline guidance, doesn’t think the disparities evident in the data collection make the case for keeping that guidance on the books. Eden argues suspension numbers have gone down, possibly as a response to pressure on school leaders to curtail. But law enforcement referrals have gone up.

“That doesn’t sound like a good trade-off to me,” Eden said. “That might broadly reflect that principals and teachers have less authority to maintain discipline in their classrooms.”

Harassment at School

As in prior years, sex-based bullying accounted for the largest portion, 41 percent, of the 135,600 reported incidents of harassment in K-12, and girls made up a disproportionate number of those targeted, at 63 percent. That includes both bullying with a sexual component, such as groping or sexual threats, and bullying based on a student’s sex.

But for the first time, in 2015-16 OCR also separated out harassment based on a student’s real or perceived sexual orientation; these accounted for 16 percent of all reported bullying incidents.

Boys were more likely than girls to be reported as both the bullies and bullied in 2015-16. Boys accounted for nearly 3 in 4 students disciplined for harassment, but also made up more than 60 percent of students reportedly targeted for harassment based on their race or because they had a disability.

Black, Native American, and multiracial students also were disproportionately likely to be the targets of reported harassment based not just on race, but also on sex and disabilities.

Enlarge chart.

STEM Education Access

Students of color also continue to trail their white classmates in the coursework needed for college-ready diplomas in many states, the data show.

White students made up 51 percent of high school enrollment, and comprised 51 and 58 percent of enrollment in physics and calculus, respectively. Black students comprised 16 percent of high school enrollment, but just 12 percent of physics enrollment, and 8 percent of calculus enrollment.

Latino students made up 24 percent of high school enrollment and represented 16 percent of students enrolled in calculus. Latino students represented 25 percent of students enrolled in physics. And the data highlighted gaps between white and Asian students and their black peers even before they reached high school, in Algebra I, considered a fundamental “gateway” math course.

White students and Asian students were disproportionately likely to be enrolled in Algebra I in grade 8—and of those, 85 percent of white students and 74 percent of Asian students passed the course.

But only 65 percent of black students enrolled in 8th grade algebra had similar success. Rather, black, and Native American students were all disproportionately likely to take Algebra I in high school—even in junior or senior year, which would make it next to impossible to fit in multiple advanced math courses before graduation.

“Is it because they’ve correctly assessed students’ ability and put them in the appropriate course? Or is it because there’s some amount of discrimination going on?” asked Joshua Goodman, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. “I take this as a sign that there is a major challenge, though it doesn’t help pinpoint the root causes of the challenge.”

Enlarge chart.

The new civil rights data also show more than 8 million students were reported “chronically absent” from school in 2015-16, meaning they missed 15 days of school or more. That represents 16 percent of all K-12 public school students, up from fewer than 7 million students who missed that much school in 2013-14, when the data was first measured at the federal level.

An initial analysis by the Education Week Research Center also finds black and Native American students were disproportionately likely to miss school.

Higher Profile

The Education Department has chosen to highlight less of the 2015-16 civil rights data initially than it has in years past, though both the profile and the stakes for the civil rights data have never been higher.

Under the federal K-12 education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, every state and district must report on a variety of civil rights indicators as part of its annual report card, including information on how many students of different racial or other subgroups are suspended out of school, expelled, or referred to police. Many states have also opted to use school absenteeism as an additional indicator of school quality under ESSA.

Moreover, following the 2013-14 data collection, advocacy groups and school-rating sites such as have used the civil rights data to inform their own reports about schools.

The breadth and accuracy of civil rights data “were improving every year under the last administration, and I suspect [the Trump administration] may continue that, because if you look at the budget, it did invest a lot in the data piece,” said Daniel Losen, the director of the center for civil rights at the University of California Los Angeles’ Civil Rights Project, adding, “but a piece of me also worries that there may be some issue with getting access to the [full] data, and there may be holes” in schools reporting all of the data.

The civil rights advocates who tend to pore over the data have clashed repeatedly with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration over what they see as a rollback of vital protections for vulnerable students.

In fact, when Trump was elected president, there were widespread fears that his administration would scrap the civil rights data collection altogether. DeVos has no plans to stop the data collection, which has been in place since 1968. In a statement accompanying Tuesday’s data release, DeVos praised the data collection and said, “Protecting all students’ civil rights is at the core of the Department’s mission.”

But Gary Orfield, a professor of education and law at UCLA, doesn’t expect that DeVos and company will use the data to inform policymaking.

“This is not a data-driven administration. This is an ideologically driven administration,” he said. “They are in the process of dismantling a lot of the functions of the office for civil rights.”

Right after taking office, the Trump administration rescinded guidance put out by President Barack Obama that called for transgender students to use the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity. And DeVos is contemplating delaying for two years an Obama-era rule that would require states to use a standardized approach to figuring out if they have too many minority students in special education or if they’re punishing them or putting them in restrictive settings more than white students.

DeVos and her team have made changes to the way civil rights cases are reviewed. The department is no longer automatically checking complaints for evidence of systemic discrimination, a practice established during the Obama administration.

By contrast, Obama’s two education secretaries—Arne Duncan and John B. King Jr.—continually referred to the data collection to make the case for their policies. For instance, King cited the civil rights data to prod states and districts to take a close look at resource inequities between schools that serve low-income and minority students and those with more advantaged populations.

In 2014, the Obama administration cited higher-than-average suspension and expulsion rates for students of color uncovered in the data to make the case for guidance that sought to crack down on discipline disparities. The Trump administration is now trying to decide whether to ditch, revise, or keep that guidance.

More Analysis

For more detail and in-depth analysis, see Education Week’s additional reporting on this data release:

  • Suspension Rates Higher for Students of Color With Disabilities, Data Show
  • Students of Color Face Persistent Disparities in Access to Advanced STEM Courses
  • Schools ‘Less Safe for Black and Brown Children,’ Civil Rights Advocates Say

Staff writers Corey Mitchell and Stephen Sawchuk and Research Analyst Alex Harwin contributed to this article.


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