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.
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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.
Reissued with revisions on July 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.
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.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Office for Civil Rights||1. 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)|
|Office for Civil Rights||2. 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)|
|Office for Civil Rights||3. 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)|
|Office for Civil Rights||4. 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)|