Student Well-Being

Federal Civil Rights Data Finds Rise in Reported Sexual Assaults

By Christina A. Samuels & Sarah D. Sparks — October 15, 2020 4 min read
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K-12 schools reported nearly twice as many allegations of sexual assaults and rape on campus in 2017-18 as in 2015-16, according to early analyses of the latest Civil Rights Data Collection.

The federal U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released its newest civil rights data collection on Thursday, covering some 50.9 million students in 97,632 district, charter, and juvenile justice schools. The release had been delayed due in part to the pandemic closures this spring, and the Education Department has announced it would also shift the 2019-20 data collection to 2020-21 because of ongoing disruptions from COVID-19. The normally biennial survey is the most comprehensive national look at potential civil rights issues in schools, from gaps in discipline practices to access to advanced classes.

The department has not yet released comprehensive national estimates for most parts of the data, but it did provide overviews for two topics in which the department has ongoing initiatives: reducing sexual violence on K-12 campuses and reducing racial and special education disparities in the use of restraint and seclusion.

Nationwide, schools reported 786 incidents of rape and attempted rape in 2017-18, up from 394 in 2015-16, and 14,152 incidents of other kinds of sexual assault, such as fondling or child molestation, up from 9,255 in the prior collection. These included any allegations on campuses, buses, or school-sponsored events, regardless of whether they were during or after school hours and regardless of whether they were confirmed or disciplinary action was taken.

Maryland reported the highest rate of rape or attempted rape in the country, at .071 for every 1,000 students, while Nevada and Georgia reported the highest rates of sexual assault, at 2.25 and 1.01 for every 1,000 students respectively. The federal Education Department has also proposed new data collections for the 2020-21 cycle including allegations of sexual assault and rape involving staff and specifically those that followed by reassignments, retirements or resignations prior to staff being fired.

OCR said it had taken steps to improve the reporting and data process this cycle, after significant data problems during 2015-16. Of the 1,100 rapes originally reported on campus in 2015-16, more than 200 were attributed to a single district in Murrieta, Calif., where it was later confirmed no actual rapes or sexual assaults had taken place. in 2017-18, OCR said it contacted 50 districts that seemed to have unusual data reported. OCR said that sexual harassment complaints, including assaults, had risen tenfold since 2009.

Students with Disabilities Make up Most of Restraint, Seclusion Incidents

Students with disabilities represented 78 percent of the students who were restrained by schools during the 2017-18 school year, according to an Education Department analysis. Students covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act also represented 77 percent of the students who were secluded in school during that year.

Those numbers suggest that a higher proportion of students with disabilities have been subjected to those highly controversial disciplinary methods since the last time national data was collected, for the 2015-16 school year. That year, students with disabilities still made up the majority of students subjected to restraint and seclusion, but in 2015-16 schools reported that 71 percent of students who were restrained, and 66 percent of those who were secluded, had disabilities.

That shift is a move in the wrong direction, said Lauren Morando Rhim, the executive director and cofounder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.

“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. We urge Congress to take action to pass federal protections to eliminate these harsh and inhumane practices, and we urge districts and schools to turn away from these dangerous forms of punishment and instead to commit to holistic approaches to behavior. Our students deserve better.”

Overall, nearly 102,000 students were subjected to restraint and seclusion during the 2017-18 school year, compared to 124,500 reported during the 2015-16 school year. The numbers are likely to be underreported, however; in a 2019 report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that 70 percent of school districts were reporting zero instances of restraint and seclusion.

In response, the department said it would engage in data quality reviews to ensure that the information coming from schools is accurate. For 2015-16, it reached out to about 4,400 districts about data quality; for 2017-18, it reached out to more than 15,000. As a result, more than 1,100 schools amended their restraint and seclusion data, the department reported.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.