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Education Department’s Civil Rights Data Collection Expands With Questions on Virus, Discipline, Sex

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 11/18/2021 Lauren Camera
Students wearing mask for protect from the coronavirus during an exam in a classroom. © (Getty Images) Students wearing mask for protect from the coronavirus during an exam in a classroom.

When the Education Department surveys schools this academic year for its long-running Civil Rights Data Collection, it's planning to introduce several new elements – including asking about how they delivered education during the pandemic as well as providing nonbinary sex categories for questions previously limited to female and male, according to documents obtained by U.S. News.

The long-running survey, conducted by the Office for Civil Rights, is already noteworthy in that it's the first time since its inception in 1968 that the office has collected such data in back-to-back years. But this year, the effort is also set to restore the collection of certain data eliminated under the Trump administration, including disciplinary actions experienced by children in preschool.

"The Civil Rights Data Collection provides crucial information for evaluating students' experiences in America's public schools," Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon said in a statement provided to U.S. News. "Especially given the COVID-19 pandemic, today's announcement of proposed data elements for the 2021-22 collection comes at a critical moment."

The Civil Rights Data Collection is a repository of information from schools serving students in preschool to grade 12 and includes data about student access to certain courses and school staff as well as school climate factors, such as the use of student discipline and incidents of harassment. The department's Office for Civil Rights uses the data when it investigates complaints alleging discrimination to determine whether the federal civil rights laws have been violated or initiates its own reviews to identify particularly acute or nationwide civil rights compliance problems.

New data collected would focus on school district responses to COVID-19, including the extent to which schools were and are offering remote, hybrid or in-person instruction, the amount of virtual instruction used each day, the percentage of students exposed to virtual instruction as well as a district's capacity to provide Wi-Fi-connected devices and hot spots to students.

"The COVID-19-related data are essential to understanding how the ongoing pandemic has affected students' access to education and the efforts by educators nationwide to meet the needs of students in public schools," the document says. "The data would also enable us to understand disparities in the occurrence of pandemic-related remote learning."

Also new – and optional – would be the addition of a nonbinary sex category for school districts that already collect such information. The nonbinary category, as defined by the civil rights office, would be for students who do not identify exclusively as male or female. The definition would not refer to transgender students who identify exclusively as either male or female.

"The inclusion of a nonbinary sex category would allow OCR to capture data that would provide a greater understanding of the experiences of nonbinary students and would help to further OCR's mission to enforce Title IX's prohibition on discrimination on the basis of sex, which includes discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity," the documents say.

Data that the civil rights office would like restored includes the number of preschool children who receive one out-of-school suspension and – separately – the number of students who receive more than one out-of-school suspension, with a focus on the number of students with disabilities who fall into each category.


Video: U.S. government opens civil rights probe into police in New York suburb (Reuters)

Administrations have wide latitude to add and subtract various data points.

For the 2020-21 collection, former President Donald Trump's Education Department added questions about religious bullying – the forthcoming collection will expand on that by asking whether school districts have written policies explicitly prohibiting bullying and harassment on the basis of race/ethnicity, gender or religion – and new data points about sexual assault by school staff.

But former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos drew intense criticism from civil rights advocates when the collection was significantly scaled back in recent years in an effort to reduce paperwork for school administrators, especially as it related to data about preschool suspension broken down by different student subgroups, school-level spending and teacher absenteeism, all of which are being restored.

Various data points on early childhood education would also be restored for the upcoming collection, including about whether school districts provide early childhood services to children, from birth to age 2, to 3-year-olds and to 4- and 5-year-olds, whether the programs are provided by the school district or contracted out, as well as the length of day, price and whether enrollment prioritizes for low-income families, students with disabilities and those still learning English.

This specific restoration would come as Congress is poised to pass the Build Back Better package, which includes roughly $400 billion for child care and universal pre-kindergarten.

Other data the civil rights office would like restored includes the number of English learners enrolled in English language instruction, the number of students in credit recovery programs and those enrolled in at least one AP class, as well as the number of full-time teachers – along with specified length of experience – number of full-time teachers absent for more than 10 school days and number of teachers employed by schools for last academic year and this year.

In addition, the civil rights office plans to revise the definitions of "mechanical restraint," "physical restraint" and "seclusion" in an attempt to collect more accurate data on an issue that it's been working on with the Department of Justice to investigate: overuse and abuse of the practices in the name of discipline in a handful of school districts.

For example, physical restraint refers to "a personal restriction, imposed by a school staff member or other individual, that immobilizes or reduces the ability of a student to move his or her torso, arms, legs, or head freely." It does not, however, include a physical escort, in which there is a temporary touching or holding of a hand, wrist, arm, shoulder or back that does not continue after arriving at a safe location. And when it comes to seclusion, the term refers to "the involuntary confinement of a student in a room or area, with or without adult supervision, from which the student is not permitted to leave." It does not include the separation of a student in an unlocked setting.

The 43-page notice of data collection for the current school year obtained by U.S. News, including the justifications for the addition of new data, the restoration of old data and the revision of data, is set to appear in the Federal Register on Friday, according to an Education Department spokeswoman.

"The proposed additions are reflective of new data elements that OCR considers to be of pressing concern, such as the extent to which schools provide virtual instruction to students during the COVID-19 pandemic," the document says. "OCR believes these are areas where additional data are needed to better inform both civil rights enforcement and the provision of technical assistance."

The changes, according to the document, were informed by recommendations from stakeholders, including listening sessions with school district leaders, school administrators, teachers and non-profit education advocacy organizations.

"The additional collection will allow the Department to identify and address inequities in educational opportunities as the country continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on students' academic, social, and emotional development," the document says. "Ongoing civil rights data about student experiences will assist the Department and school officials with assessing the initial impacts of the substantial increase in federal funding to schools and districts to ensure students received equitable access to instruction and other activities during the COVID-19 pandemic."

Copyright 2021 U.S. News & World Report

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