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Civil Rights Data Collection: Student Retention and Referrals to Law Enforcement

Exploring race-based disparities in how frequently students are referred to law enforcement or held back in school—all of which impacts educational outcomes.

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The data

This viz includes race-disaggregated 2017-2018 data from the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education (ED) on student referrals to law enforcement, arrests by law enforcement, and student retention (being held back a grade). The public-use data files provided by ED include privacy protections at the school level, but the process used by ED ensures that aggregation to the state level is still accurate. This viz shows state-level data.

The visualization

This dashboard focuses on two critical aspects of education—school discipline and grade advancement—that show significant and persistent racial disparities. The dashboard is designed to show disparities in discipline and advancement by student race, and also across states. 

The historical context

Referrals of students to law enforcement reflect how schools respond to disciplinary events, and the decision to refer students—and the subsequent choice of law enforcement to arrest the student—can be influenced by racial prejudice.  As with referrals, grade level retention—which is when students are held back a grade, negatively impacting their educational outcomes—can be shaped by stereotypes and prejudices by student race.

The current implications

Students are more likely to succeed outside of the criminal justice system and if they progress uninterrupted through school. However, these opportunities are not uniform and systemic racism plays a substantial role in more non-white students, particularly Black students, being referred to law enforcement and disproportionately arrested for behavioral issues, or being held back a grade.

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Data Deep-Dive

Key takeaways to guide analysis

Understanding referral and arrest data

It's essential to look at both: Referral data shows disciplinary choices by schools; arrest data reflects police department action.

Population demographics matter

While some states—like Oregon—appear to refer few Black students to law enforcement, it's important to look at the data in the context of the state's racial demographics.

Racism in grade retention

Nearly all states hold back Black and Hispanic students at higher rates than their Asian and White counterparts.