Race, Discipline, and Safety at U.S. Public Schools

There are more than 96,000 public schools in America. The U.S. Department of Education recently released data that was collected from all of them. The data, based on the 2015-2016 school year, reveals the extent of police presence in schools, the lack of basic services, and the growing racial disparities in public school systems serving 50 million students. In many communities, all of these conditions are worsening.

The ACLU is partnering with the UCLA Civil Rights Project to publish a series of reports and data tools to enhance the public’s understanding of the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC). Some data are being reported publicly for the first time, including the number of days lost to suspension; the number of police officers in stationed in schools; and the number of school shootings reported nationwide.

Read the full report

 A careful examination of this data also calls into question how the Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos is interpreting it. In a recent publication highlighting the data on “school climate and safety,” the administration reported on the number of school shootings without checking for errors, potentially inflating the number of school shootings by the hundreds. Instead of proceeding with care, the administration is now using the flawed data on school shootings to emphasize a need for more school discipline -- which has turned schools into militarized places that deprive students of color of an equal education, as previously reported by earlier administrations.  

Here are four big takeaways revealed in our series of reports.

For the first time in history, public schools in America serve mostly children of color

Nationwide student demographics

The new data shows that students of color make up the majority of public school students. When federal data was first collected in 1968, over 80 percent of public school students were white. Because of changing demographics, white students now constitute just 49 percent of American school children. As the federal government considers further cuts to education funding, it should recognize that the harm will now fall in greater measure on communities of color, which have historically been underserved by school systems.

Students missed over 11 million days of school in 2015-16 because of suspensions

We’ve known for years that students of color have long experiencing excessive and unequal rates of suspension. Thanks to the new CRDC reporting requirements, we now know for the first time exactly how much education has been denied these students.  The 11 million days of lost instruction from suspensions as disciplinary actions from 2015-2016 translates to more than 60,000 school years, more than 60 million hours of lost education, and billions of dollars wasted. And this is all in a single school year.

The amount of lost educational opportunities is particularly severe for students of color. Dramatic disparities exist at the school, district, state, and national levels. California for example enrolls four times as many white students than Black students. Yet the total number of instruction days lost by Black students due to suspension was nearly the same as the number of days lost by whites (141,000 for Blacks compared with 151,000 for whites). The map below provides a county-based analysis which shows local disparities.

Millions of students are in schools with cops but no counselor, social worker, or nurse

Our report reveals that tens of thousands of schools are not equipped to meet the social, emotional, or behavioral needs of students. The federal data indicates that many of these schools prioritize law enforcement rather than mental health and social services. 

Here are some key findings:

  • Nationally, schools reported more than 27,000 sworn law enforcement officers compared with  just 23,000 social workers.
  • More than 36 million students were enrolled in 55,000 schools that did not meet the American School Counselors Association’s recommended 250:1 student-to-counselor ratio.
  • Nationally, there was a student-to-counselor ratio of 444:1, suggesting that counselors are seriously overworked with a student caseload that is 78 percent greater than what is recommended by professionals.

The map below reveals that students with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by the practice of exclusionary discipline. Nationally, students with disabilities lost instruction due to suspensions at more than twice the rate of their non-disabled peers. The states with the highest rate for days lost with for students with disabilities were Hawaii (95), Tennessee (85), North Carolina (85), Virginia (78), and Delaware (78).

Over 96 percent of the “serious offenses” reported in the new data do not involve weapons

The Trump administration put significant emphasis on the serious offenses reported by schools in their reporting of the civil rights data, but our report reveals that the vast majority of the incidents categorized as “serious” didn’t involve weapons of any kind.

Although there were over 1 million “serious offenses” involving students reported in the 2015-16 school year, over 96 percent of these related to fights, physical attacks, or threats without weapons.  Only 3 percent of the million offenses actually involved a weapon, and less than 3% of all public schools reported an incident of physical attack or fight with a weapon.

Every public school in the country was also required to report occurrences of school shootings on campus, regardless of injury. Our research and follow up with the schools found this data to be mostly erroneous.

Over 230 schools reported school shootings. However, two school districts mistakenly reported each of their schools as having a shooting. The data from these two districts accounted for 63 of the reported shootings.  

Everytown Research, a nonprofit organization, reports that less than 30 school shootings occurred in K-12 settings during the 2015-16 school year, a far cry from the nearly 240 reported by the Trump administration. We have been reaching out to schools individually. Over 138 of the schools contacted have confirmed the errors, while only 11 have confirmed school shootings. 

Stay Informed