Becoming a Civil Rights Data Advocate

Equal and fair treatment of all students is not something that can be taken for granted. It must be monitored. And for that we need access to data – data that is correct, reported on a regular basis, and interpreted properly. Data advocacy has long been a part of civil rights work, whether in the arenas of housing, employment, or education.

Since about 2009, the flow of education data coming out of the federal government has allowed us to document the school-to-prison pipeline and its impact on students with disabilities, young women, and students of color. Indeed, the release and interpretation of this data has influenced debates about school climate and safety in school communities and legislatures around the country.

We don’t know what will happen with access to meaningful school civil rights data under the Trump-DeVos education regime. What type of data will be made public in the future? When will it be released? Will the US Education Department (ED) release reports summarizing key civil rights trends? All signs point to a decline in meaningful federal enforcement with the ED paying less attention to reviewing data that may indicate systematic unfair treatment of students.

But the story doesn’t end there. Advocates can and must build a civil rights advocacy agenda at the state and local levels, and that work extends to data advocacy. The good news is there are plenty of opportunities to do that type of data advocacy. The two data advocacy opportunities I want to highlight are: how you can obtain from local and state agencies the same data that is reported to ED, and how you can use the new local and state reporting requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

What’s Up at the Federal Level

In recent years, advocates have come to rely on the federal Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), collected by the US ED Department every other year. The Department describes the purpose of the CRDC as follows: “The CRDC collects data on leading civil rights indicators related to access and barriers to educational opportunity at the early childhood through grade 12 levels. The CRDC is also a longstanding and critical aspect of the overall enforcement and monitoring strategy used by OCR [ED’s Office of Civil Rights] to ensure that recipients of the Department’s Federal financial assistance do not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, and disability.”

The most recent data posted on the public website covers the 2013-14 school year; but education agencies have recently submitted data covering the 2015-16 SY to ED. There is a significant delay in the posting of nationwide data, typically two years after the completion of the school year for which it was collected. The full analysis of that data can take even longer. In October of 2017, ED finally completed its work on the 2013-14 data. It released state and national estimations (discipline rates for each state and for the country overall) and updated its comparison graphs and data tool to enable users to compare discipline rates of up to twelve states. ED finally closed the books on data for a school year that ended more than three years ago!

Obtaining Federal Data – The Local Connection

You don’t have to wait for the federal government to publish the most recent data in order to put your hands on it. Data for the 2015-16 school year has already been compiled and turned in to ED. Between February and April 30th of this year, all publicly funded districts and schools (including charters) were required to submit civil rights data for the 2015-16 school year.

You can obtain the CRDC data for the 2015-16 school year by submitting a request under your state’s open records law to the sending agency (school district, charter school or network, state education agency, etc.). It is best to request the 2015-16 school year data now, as there is no federal requirement that the local or state agency keep the report once it has been submitted.

To make life simple, we have developed a template for requesting data using your state’s open records law. This template requests only discipline and enrollment data. Take the template, substitute the name of your state’s open records or right to know law and any other relevant specifics (such as deadlines imposed by law and a request for a fee waiver), and let it rip. Here is an example of a response we received from a Pennsylvania district for data on one middle school.

Useful Tips

The 2015-16 data documents a broader range of disciplinary issues.

For 2015-16, education agencies were required to provide data on additional issues. Some items that were considered optional for the 2013-14 CRDC are now mandatory for the 2015-16 CRDC. Of special note are questions about discipline in pre-school programs (including corporal punishment), corporal punishment at all levels, school days missed by students who received out-of-school suspensions, students transferred for disciplinary reasons to alternative schools, allegations of harassment or bullying on the basis of sexual orientation or religion, students who participated in justice facility educational program, and the number of sworn law enforcement officers (including school resource officers).

You may be able to obtain data from state agencies.

Some State Education Agencies (SEAs), such as departments of public instruction or education, submit data for the entire state. You can submit a request to your state education agency (using one of the above-mentioned templates) if you are interested in comparing districts or doing a state-level analysis, or your local education agency isn’t being helpful. For the 2013-14 CRDC, these states submitted some or all data that way: CO, FL, *GA, HI, IA, KS, KY, NC, UT, and WI. We’ve learned that additional states are now using this method. I encourage you to ask your state agency whether it submits data for the entire state.

Under ESSA, state education agencies will have an expanded role in collecting and reporting discipline data and ensuring that local education agencies do so as well.

Going Forward

Data is your friend. Demand access to it, and use it to protect the civil rights of young people.

Advocates must hold local and state institutions accountable for collecting and releasing data, and for correcting bad data. Our Using Data web page contains many tools to help you get started, including a helpful webinar on using civil rights data in local efforts.

In part two of this blog, we’ll talk about the local and state discipline data reporting requirements of ESSA and about state and local advocacy strategies. In part three, we will review helpful tools you can use to make sense of data.

Update - May 29, 2020

In May 2020, the US Education Department (ED) completed its work on the 2015-16 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC). While the raw data have been available for downloading for some time, with some numbers rounded at the school level to protect the privacy of students, State and National Estimations were not released until May 2020.

Also, several Data Analysis Tools on the CRDC site - Comparison Graphs and Data and Detail Graphs and Data - have been populated with 2015-16 data. These tools help you compare data for schools, districts, or states.

Data for the 2017-18 CRDC have been collected, but not released, by ED. However, you can submit a request for the data to the local education agency (school district, charter agency, etc.) which provided that data to the federal government.

Harold Jordan is Senior Policy Advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the author of Beyond Zero Tolerance: Discipline and Policing in Pennsylvania Public Schools.

*In GA, the state submitted partial data, which was then supplemented by local agencies.

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Last updated December 21, 2020

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