The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released the long-awaited data from the 2020-21 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) — disaggregated information that is usually collected every other year on student enrollment and access to educational programs and services. This data collection is the key to understanding the experiences of students in U.S. public schools and is the most comprehensive database to help advocates, researchers, and policymakers understand issues of equity — such as disparities in disciplinary outcomes and academic opportunities.

This most recent collection of data continues to build our understanding of the impacts that the COVID-19 pandemic had on students and is unique from past CRDC data due to school closures across many parts of the country. This has more ramifications for discipline and school climate data than for academic opportunity data. As a result, researchers, advocates, and policymakers will need to analyze and use the data with thoughtful consideration, including, as the OCR cautions, when comparing this data to previous years.

There are three main considerations that should be prioritized when interpreting the discipline and school climate data:

  1. Some data was difficult to collect in a virtual environment. For example, educators are less likely to see, and therefore unable to report, incidents of bullying that happen in a virtual environment. This means that some of the data may not accurately represent students’ experiences.
  2. Some events don’t happen in virtual environments as opposed to in-person learning. For example, while educators may turn to corporal punishment when they are in-person and can physically lay hands on students, this is not an option in virtual learning environments. Corporal punishment happened much less in 2020-21 than would have if students were in-person during this academic year.
  3. Teaching and discipline practices looked very different in a virtual environment, and therefore data definitions used by OCR or school districts may not fully reflect what researchers and advocates hope to capture. For example, exclusionary discipline — such as suspensions and expulsions — have clear definitions for in-person learning. However, in the adaptation to virtual learning, exclusionary discipline looked very different: Students were virtually locked out of accounts or removed from online lessons (e.g., by being sent to a “breakout room” apart from the class) without a formal suspension attached.

Additionally, while the OCR conducts data quality checks before publication, the 2020-21 CRDC was especially complex for schools and districts to report, and some data has been suppressed due to concerns about the quality of the data (estimates suggest that 11% of the suspension data has been suppressed for data quality reasons).

What researchers, advocates, and policymakers can glean from this data is that, although this CRDC was an anomaly, disparities in discipline persisted. According to calculations done by OCR, Black boys in P-12 made up 8% of enrollment, but accounted for:

  • 15% of students who were subjected to in-school suspensions
  • 18% of students who were subjected to out-of-school suspensions
  • 18% of students who were subjected to expulsions
  • 18% of students who were subjected to corporal punishment

P-12 students with disabilities made up 17% of enrollment, but accounted for:

  • 24% of students who were subjected to in-school suspensions
  • 29% of students who were subjected to out-of-school suspensions
  • 27% of students who were subjected to referrals to law enforcement
  • 28% of students who were subjected to school-related arrests

Disparities in this data likely only scratch the surface of the disparities in disciplinary actions for students of color and students with disabilities. Upcoming data from the 2021-22 CRDC will provide a more in-depth look at the impacts of the pandemic on students, and advocates should continue to encourage OCR to release this data in a timelier manner. At the same time, school and district leaders should be vigilant about ensuring educators, especially novice teachers, who are more likely to contribute to discipline disparities, have the training and resources to supports student well-being through restorative discipline practices that center relationship-building and accountability without causing further harm to students.