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Biden Could Save This Critical Education Program


In schools around New York, Black and Latinx students are disciplined much more harshly and frequently than their white counterparts. But when it comes to important facts about how students across the state are disciplined, and how many of them end up in handcuffs – sometimes for minor misbehavior – there’s still a lot we don’t know.

Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos largely neglected a program that could shed light on these and many other questions that could help strengthen the rights of all students – especially students of color. With a new administration, there is renewed hope that important data from across New York and around the country could finally come to light.

Every two years, the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) reports many kinds of school-related and school-reported data. Among them is discipline information for every public school district in the country, as well as incidents of bullying and harassment. If the numbers were fully reported, the reports could be one of the best ways to track the progress of the discipline disparities between white students and students of color. It could also be one of the best ways to begin to close the gap in disproportionate responses and bringing our education system out of the era of the school to prison pipeline.

Almost two years ago, my colleagues penned a piece about the wide gaps in the federally reported data for New York State. Unfortunately, on this new round of data for the 2017-18 school year – the first and only during the time Betsy DeVos ran the Department of Education – the picture is not much clearer due to partially unreported numbers.

What is clear, however, is that despite decreases in the number of suspensions, racial disparities persist.

Without complete data we don’t know how students’ lives are impacted by police, communities can’t make informed decisions about what problems exist in their schools and how best to fix them, and we have no idea how many students’ lives are derailed by the school-to-prison pipeline that funnels students into the criminal justice system.

Without complete data we don’t know how students’ lives are impacted by police.

New York City provides one example of how this lack of information stymies progress. The data shows that there are 1,635 schools with a police presence. Yet, the number of school safety officers and security guards listed is either zero or unreported. Further, the New York City School Safety Division is one of the largest in the country, costing the city at least $300 million, yet no data is given on how many officers there are, where they are stationed, or what any of the money goes to other than officer salaries.

The crimes these officers supposedly prevent in schools are not reported here. But through a New York City-specific law – the Student Safety Act – we do know the total numbers of arrests and referrals made at City schools. This information, combined with what little data is reported to the CRDC by the City, shows that the brunt of discipline and law enforcement activity is felt by Black students.

These youth make up only 23 percent of the student population but account for over 50 percent of all suspensions and nearly 50 percent of referrals to law enforcement.

The numbers for students with disabilities are just as bad. Black students with disabilities make up just 28 percent of the student population in the City, but account for almost 50 percent of suspensions and referrals for students with disabilities.

The Student Safety Act gives us an important window into the disparities New York City students face. But it is extremely likely students all over the state are experiencing similar discrimination and racist outcomes. We just don’t have the data to show it.

President-elect Biden’s nominee for Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has not said much about how he will approach issues like school discipline, police in schools, or school climate.

If he is confirmed by the Senate, Cardona should set a tone early that civil rights are at the core of his education philosophy, and one way to show that is to commit to transparency around CRDC reports.

The NYCLU recently joined colleagues across the country in asking Cardona and Biden to reissue Obama-era guidance on reducing arrests in school. With accurate data on the devastating impact of over-policing, parents, students and advocates can urge investment in healthy school culture, and show progress in closing the discipline disparities between white students and students of color.

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Civil Liberties Union