School Climate & Safety

Schools Underreport How Often Students Are Restrained or Secluded, GAO Finds

By Corey Mitchell — June 18, 2019 5 min read
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The Government Accountability Office, the congressional watchdog agency, is urging the U.S. Department of Education to take “immediate action” to address the underreporting of restraint and seclusion in the nation’s schools.

In a report released Tuesday, the GAO asserts that the Education Department has repeatedly and knowingly published the inaccurate data in its civil rights data collection.

According to the GAO report, 70 percent of school districts reported that no special education students were restrained or secluded during the 2015-16 school year. That 70 percent of districts included some of the nation largest school systems, such as New York, Philadelphia, and Florida’s Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

According to explanations provided by districts directly to the education department or information the districts made public, nine of the 10 largest districts that reported zero incidents of restraint or seclusion that school year actually had incidents they did not report, incidents they were unable to report, or were not collecting the data. Rather than indicating that the districts did not report data, the department’s civil rights data collection still indicates that the districts had zero restraints and zero seclusions, the GAO report found.

Left uncorrected, the erroneous data could severely limit the ability of the department to monitor, enforce, and oversee potential civil rights violations, wrote Jacqueline Nowicki, the director of education, workforce, and income security at the GAO.

To remedy the problem, the watchdog agency wants the department to “prominently disclose for past collections the potential problems with using restraint and seclusion data given the known misreporting issues” and ensure that school districts are adhering to reporting requirements for data submitted for the 2017-18 school year.

The GAO also wants the department to remind school districts that they are only to report no incidents of restraint when there are none.

“Because [the education department] is currently collecting and validating restraint and seclusion data for the 2017-18 school year, it is important it take immediate steps to address underreporting before it publishes these data,” Nowicki wrote.

In a response to the GAO report, Kenneth L. Marcus, the assistant secretary for civil rights under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, noted that the department already had plans to monitor and improve data collection on the use of restraint and seclusion.

“We agree with GAO that data quality and accuracy are very important, particularly on an issue like restraint and seclusion, and because accurate reporting may assist in ensuring appropriate use of behavioral strategies and tools given the possibility of abuse that could arise if such tools are used indiscriminately,” Marcus wrote in his response letter.

“We will continue to take steps to improve the quality of data received ... This issue is too important to expect anything less.”

As part of the initiative, announced by DeVos in January, the department will also conduct compliance reviews of school districts and provide technical assistance to schools to ensure reporting compliance.

The department disagreed with the recommendation that they correct known errors published in previous civil rights data collections. Marcus indicated that data collection for the 2017-18 collection was too far along to clarify instructions or require school systems to re-submit or amend their reports.

‘Chronically Underreported’

The findings from the GAO report closely mirror those from an Education Week Research Center analysis of data collected by the department’s office for civil rights for the 2013-14 school year. That year, nearly 80 percent of school districts reported that no special education students were restrained or secluded, the analysis found. Conducted in 2017, the analysis concludes that figure was almost surely an undercount of actual incidents. Advocacy organizations conducting their own investigations have also found undercounts.

The uneven and incomplete recordkeeping has potentially serious consequences for students who could be injured or traumatized while restrained or secluded and for teachers struggling to find help to deal with troubled or disruptive students, as my colleague Christina Samuels reported in 2017.

Nationwide, reports of restraint and seclusion are on the rise. In the 2015-16 school year, about 122,000 students nationwide were reported to be restrained or secluded or both, up from nearly 70,000 students reported to the department from the 2013-14 school year. Students with disabilities make up about 12 percent of the overall student population, but they comprise 71 percent of the students who are restrained in school and 66 percent of those who are secluded, based on records from the 2015-16 school year from the department’s civil rights office.

Democratic members of Congress have sought to ban the practice of isolating students in special rooms or otherwise secluding them in schools that receive federal funds, as well as to limit when students can be physically restrained.

While attempts to pass legislation have failed, the latest GAO report is a product of efforts on Capitol Hill to shed light on the issue.

Language in the budget signed into law by President Donald Trump in 2018 instructed the GAO to study the restraint and seclusion data that is reported to the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights.

“There is concern that seclusion and restraint issues continue to be chronically underreported,” the legislative language reads. “In particular, GAO is encouraged to evaluate recommendations for improving data collection at any school, including any special education or alternative school.”

But the GAO study still has its limitations.

“Neither [the department of education] nor the public can know the prevalence of restraint and seclusion in public schools,” the report concludes.

Related Reading

70,000 Students With Disabilities Secluded, Restrained in School

Initiative Tightens Scrutiny on Restraint, Seclusion in Spec. Ed.

‘It’s Barbaric.’ Lawmakers Probe Restraint and Seclusion Ahead of Legislation

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.