K-12 Education:

Education Should Take Immediate Action to Address Inaccuracies in Federal Restraint and Seclusion Data [Reissued with revisions on July 11, 2019.]

GAO-19-551R: Published: Jun 18, 2019. Publicly Released: Jun 18, 2019.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Jacqueline M. Nowicki
(617) 788-0580
nowickij@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

The Department of Education broadly defines restraint as restricting a student’s ability to move their torso, arms, legs, or head freely, and seclusion as confinement alone to an area they can't leave. Education has said these practices should only be used when a child poses imminent danger.

School districts must report restraint and seclusion in Education's Civil Rights Data Collection every 2 years. The most recent data shows 70% of districts reported zero incidents. However, we found that not all incidents are reported, and 9 districts with over 100,000 students reported zeros in error.

We made 4 recommendations for a more accurate count.

Photo the of the U.S. Department of Education

Photo the of the U.S. Department of Education

Reissued with Revisions Jul. 11, 2019

Because of a programming error, some incidents of restraint and seclusion in table 1 of the report were significantly understated. Revised July 11, 2019 to correct that data. Corrections are on pages 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Jacqueline M. Nowicki
(617) 788-0580
nowickij@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

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.

Why GAO Did This Study

Every 2 years, Education collects data, including data on restraint and seclusion, from almost all public school districts. Education uses this data in its enforcement of federal civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, or disability. Education has been collecting data on restraint and seclusion since school year 2009-10 and is currently collecting data for school year 2017-18.

GAO has work underway on reporting of restraint and seclusion data in response to a provision in the explanatory statement from the House Committee on Appropriations accompanying the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018. As part of data reliability testing for that work, GAO analyzed the number of districts that reported all zeros or that left fields blank pertaining to restraint and seclusion. The data reliability testing raised questions about the completeness and accuracy of the CRDC restraint and seclusion data. GAO subsequently reviewed the explanations required by Education of the largest districts if they report zero incidents of restraint and seclusion, and documentation on Education's investigations that found underreporting. This report focuses on the issues GAO has identified to date regarding potentially incomplete data.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that Education (1) immediately remind and clarify for school districts when to report zeros for incidents of restraint and seclusion and when to leave cells blank, (2) follow up with districts reporting zero incidents in the 2017-18 collection, (3) ensure plans for providing data in the future are submitted and complete, and (4) prominently disclose the potential problems with the previous CRDC restraint and seclusion data . Education agreed with the first three recommendations and disagreed with the fourth, which we have revised above.

For more information, contact Jacqueline M. Nowicki (617) 788-0580 or nowickij@gao.gov.

Reissued with Revisions Jul. 11, 2019

Because of a programming error, some incidents of restraint and seclusion in table 1 of the report were significantly understated. Revised July 11, 2019 to correct that data. Corrections are on pages 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Education agreed with this recommendation but noted that its implementation is contingent on the availability of resources. Education agreed to remind districts going forward that they are only to report zero incidents of restraint and seclusion when there are none and to ensure that instructions for when to record zeros and when to leave cells blank are prominently displayed, but said that this reminder is too late for the 2017-18 data collection because 94 percent of districts had already submitted their data. Dependent on available funds and staff resources, Education agreed to feature the instructions more prominently on the website and consider other changes, such as targeted communications and changes in the placement of the instructions for the 2019-20 collection. While we appreciate that most districts have already submitted data for 2017-18, Education allows districts a significant period of time in which to correct errors. We believe that reminding districts about when to record zeros, even retroactively, could prompt districts to address any errors before Education publishes these data sometime in 2020, thereby improving the integrity of its CRDC data.

    Recommendation: The Assistant Secretary for the Office for Civil Rights should immediately remind and clarify for all school districts that they are to only report zero incidents of restraint and seclusion when there are none and that they are to leave cells blank to indicate when data are not collected or incomplete. The Assistant Secretary should also ensure that instructions for when to record zeros and when to leave cells blank are prominently displayed and readily available to districts as they complete the CRDC. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Education: Office for Civil Rights

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Education agreed with this recommendation but noted that its implementation is contingent on the availability of resources. Education stated that once the 2017-18 collection ends, it will review data quality findings, including the reporting of zero incidents, to determine appropriate outreach to states and districts. Education stated depending on available resources, it would also continue to explore opportunities to follow up on submissions of reports of zero incidents. We continue to urge Education to make follow-up a priority before Education makes these data publicly available so that the public, researchers, and federal policymakers that use these data know if it can be relied upon.

    Recommendation: The Assistant Secretary for the Office for Civil Rights should, as part of the 2017-18 CRDC quality assurance process, follow up with school districts that have already submitted reports of zero incidents of restraint or seclusion to obtain assurances that zero incidents means no incidents or ask the districts to submit corrected data. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Education: Office for Civil Rights

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Education agreed with this recommendation but noted that its implementation is contingent on the availability of resources. The agency agreed to monitor compliance with its action plan requirement. Education also stated that it had recently taken steps to more closely scrutinize action plans for the 2017-18 data collection, including directly communicating with districts about their action plans and scheduling calls with any district that requests similar or repetitious action plans over the course of two or more collections.

    Recommendation: The Assistant Secretary for the Office for Civil Rights should monitor compliance with its action plan requirement, and ensure plans are submitted and address all missing data. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Education: Office for Civil Rights

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Education disagreed with this recommendation, believing it was not feasible to continually update the published data files for closed collections due to the need to finalize consistent data for the federal agencies, policymakers, researchers, educators, school officials, and others who use the CRDC data. Instead, Education stated that for the 2015-16 data collection, it would amend the data notes to ensure the public is aware of potential changes. However, as Education pointed out, these data are widely used by policymakers, researchers, educators, school officials, and others. Because there is a compelling reason to believe that there is some misreporting of restraint and seclusion data, and because Federal Standards for Internal Control provide for agencies to use quality information to achieve the entity's objectives, it is important that, at a minimum, Education be clear and transparent about the limitations of the restraint and seclusion data it makes publicly available.

    Recommendation: The Assistant Secretary for the Office for Civil Rights should prominently disclose for past collections the potential problems with using restraint and seclusion data given the known misreporting issues, such as those detailed in this report involving 9 of the nation's large public school districts. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Department of Education: Office for Civil Rights

 

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