ACLU Report Highlights Staff Shortages, Over-Policing, and Discriminatory Discipline in Schools

ACLU Analysis of Federal Civil Rights Data Shows Large Disparities in School Arrests in Every State, Fueled by Lack of Support Staff

March 4, 2019 12:00 pm

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NEW YORK — On the heels of the one-year anniversary of the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the American Civil Liberties Union released a comprehensive analysis of federal civil rights data from 2015–16, highlighting severe under-resourcing in schools and a failure to follow mental health professionals’ recommendations for adequate support systems for students.

The Department of Education released a report on the data through the Federal Commission on School Safety, failing to acknowledge these shortcomings. The ACLU’s report contends that while schools are undoubtedly under-resourced, budgets are being allocated to the wrong places — namely school hardening in place of support systems recommended by mental health professionals.

The ACLU’s report found over 90 percent of students nationwide attend schools that fail to meet the nationally recommended ratios for student-to-counselors, psychologists, nurses, and social workers. Over 14 million of these students were in schools that reported having law enforcement present despite lacking critical mental and physical health personnel. The report cites research indicating that students would benefit more from increased access to mental health professionals than the increased school hardening the commission recommends.

“How we prepare for and respond to children in need of support is a choice, and research is clear that providing more counselors is the best approach. There is no ‘crisis’ in student behavior, only a crisis of priorities leading to staff shortages and lack of resources for support,” said Amir Whitaker, an attorney at the ACLU of Southern California. “We can either provide evidence-based support for students or take overly punitive and police-heavy measures that have no demonstrable positive impact. Our report shows school hardening practices disproportionately harm students of color and students with disabilities and fail to make schools safer overall.”

The School Social Work Association of America recommends one social worker for every 250 students. The report found that all 50 states are failing to meet this standard. The report also found particularly disturbing trends related to school arrests and referrals to law enforcement. Black students are three times as likely to be arrested as white students, and in some states, Black girls are eight times as likely to be arrested as white girls. Students with disabilities were also nearly three times as likely to be arrested as their non-disabled peers, with the disparity up to 10 times in some states.

The ACLU’s analysis also found a staggering number of school resource officers and law enforcement officers in schools, in place of mental health professionals. There are seldom calls to increase the funding for mental health professionals in schools. Instead, the Trump administration is prioritizing funding for school police.

Highlights from the report include:

  • The average number of students each school counselor serves is 444 — nearly double the already limited recommended student-counselor ratio of 250:1
  • At least 43 percent of our nation's students attend schools with onsite police, and in some states more than 68 percent of schools have police
  • 31 percent of the nation's students attend schools that have school police, but no psychologist, nurse, social worker, and/or counselor
  • Black girls account for 16 percent of girls enrolled nationwide, but account for 39 percent of the girls arrested in school
  • Native American and Pacific Islander students were more than twice as likely to be arrested as white students nationwide
  • Black and Latino boys with disabilities are 3 percent of students, but were 12 percent of school arrests.

A video highlighting findings from the report and major incidents of over-policing in schools can be found here:

For more information on the report, visit

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