Privacy, Research

Legislative Update Part I: States Put Data to Use to Promote School Safety and Equity

Legislative Update Part I: States Put Data to Use to Promote School Safety and Equity

For five years, the Data Quality Campaign (DQC) has tracked state legislation around the governance, protection, and use of education data. Our 2018 legislative review explored the many new ways in which states committed to putting data to work for students. This is the first in a series of blog posts highlighting notable state legislative activity.

2018 marked another year of deadly school shootings that galvanized the education community. From students who mobilized for gun control, to Secretary Betsy DeVos’ school safety commission, there has been no shortage of passionate discussion around this issue. Often left out of the conversation, however, is the role that data sharing can play in providing information that can help bolster school safety.

Over the last five years of DQC’s legislative tracking, policymakers have laid down the foundation for keeping student information secure. Though the work to protect privacy is never done, thanks to this groundwork, legislators have the flexibility to leverage data in a variety of ways to support students. This includes using data as a tool to address two of the most pressing issues in education: school safety and student discipline.

One month after the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Florida passed a law which, among other things, creates the Office of Safe Schools within the state’s department of education. This new office will coordinate with the Department of Law Enforcement to provide a centralized integrated data depository and corresponding analytics tools. This legislation gives decisionmakers access to information from a variety of sources including the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Juvenile Justice, local law enforcement agencies, and social media. These efforts will ensure that all necessary parties have access to the same information when it comes to keeping students safe. In addition, this law facilitates information-sharing between districts and child health service agencies in order to aid at-risk students who may require mental health treatment and support from their schools.

Maryland, which also suffered a school shooting in 2018, passed legislation that will empower the state’s center for school safety to collaborate with various state agencies, local law enforcement, parents, and community groups to collect and analyze data to inform safety plans. These efforts will help to establish a Safe School Information and Best Practices Clearinghouse, which will house research-based and data-driven strategies to strengthen school safety efforts. In addition, to ensure equitable practices, schools will be required to collect data on incidents of the use of force between school resource officers and students.

While school shootings have been far too prevalent in our country’s current events, student discipline has long been an issue of concern for advocates, and has generated lively debate over the past several years. Advocates point to the Civil Rights Data Collection as evidence that students of color as well as students with disabilities are disproportionately disciplined via suspension, expulsion, and physical restraint. Civil rights groups have been active in drawing attention to these practices that affect large segments of the student population. With this in mind, it is encouraging to see policymakers take action to make data a tool to measure what matters and improve evidence-based decisionmaking.

In addition to safety legislation, Maryland passed a law that will require discipline reports to be disaggregated by race, ethnicity, gender, disability, English learner status, and measures of socioeconomic status. This information can help administrators know if discipline is applied fairly in their schools, and can inform practices to fix inequities. When policymakers in Delaware reviewed their disaggregated data, they found that Black students and students with disabilities made up a disproportionately high number of out-of-school suspensions. Many of those suspensions were for minor infractions such as tardiness and dress code violations. To address this, the state passed legislation that will require schools to report discipline data, identify gaps, and submit plans to reduce overall suspensions as well as disparities between groups. To ensure transparency, Delaware schools will also be required to make implementation progress reports available online.

While data sharing can help shine a light on gaps and inequities, it also comes with the need to ensure that the data is being used properly and without bias. Although states create safety and disciplinary policies with the best intentions, inappropriate data-sharing is a valid concern that could have dire consequences for some students. Policies that do not respect the privacy and dignity of all students cannot realistically fall under the umbrella of school safety. Some have noted that these concerns about differential treatment and bias are reflected in legislation on student discipline. It is critical for lawmakers to make data a tool that schools and districts can use internally to evaluate their own practices. In addition, during the drafting stage and implementation period, policymakers must take great care to account for potential unintended consequences.

Although the topics of school safety and school discipline both inspire debate, everyone should be able to agree that policymakers, administrators, teachers, and families deserve all the information possible to make the best decisions. Useful, high-quality data is necessary to create an environment in which evidence drives the policies that will ensure safety and dignity for every child.

Stay tuned for more insights on legislation from the 2018 session and updates on activity from the 2019 session.