The Civil Rights Data Collection Doesn’t Gather Enough Information on Girls With Disabilities, But What It Does Collect Is Troubling

Girls with disabilities deserve a safe, inclusive, and supportive educational environment free from discrimination. To that end, this July, the U.S. Department of Education (“Department”) released comprehensive guidance to help schools avoid the discriminatory use of discipline with students with disabilities—reinforcing and strengthening the protections provided by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“the IDEA”) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”). These two federal laws guarantee access to education for students with disabilities through protecting their civil rights.  

This is a major step forward, considering the current data we have on race and gender disparities in school discipline between students with and without disabilities is nothing short of troubling.  

Exclusionary school discipline includes corporal punishment, expulsions, referrals to law enforcement, arrests, suspensions, the use of restraint and seclusion, and transfers to other schools.  

Students with disabilities face high rates of exclusionary discipline, due to stereotypes about typical student behavior and failures to provide legally required supports. We also know that girls of color, especially Black girls and Native American girls, are disproportionately impacted by those same discipline policies, as well as dress code policies that are created and enforced using sexist and racist stereotypes about ‘appropriate’ behavior. 

As a result, these disciplinary policies push the most marginalized students out of the classroom, costing them valuable learning time as well as having other devastating long-term consequences, such as involvement in the criminal legal system. 

But we don’t have all the data we need to understand the full extent of these disparities for students with disabilities of varying gender identities, races, and ethnicities. 

Every other year, the Department of Education conducts what is called the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), which asks nearly all public schools across the country to provide information on their school climate, quality, services, student outcomes, and more. This data includes information on the experiences of students with disabilities, including those receiving services through the IDEA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.  

While the IDEA funds special education programs, including Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), Section 504 helps ensure students with physical or mental impairments have equal access to learning through things like extra test time. Depending on their needs, students with disabilities can receive services under just one or both of these laws. But the CRDC collects more detailed data on students receiving services under the IDEA—breaking their discipline down by gender identity and race/ethnicity. 

The data for Section 504, on the other hand, is much more incomplete, broken down by gender identity onlyfor example, girls overall. 

But even without the gender/race breakdown of Section 504-only data, the limited data we do have on gender and race disparities for students served under the IDEA is concerning enough.

The CRDC from the 2017-18 school year—the most recent published datashows that the disparities in rates of discipline among girls with disabilities are stark. Specifically, the disparities that Black girls with disabilities face compared to white girls are far higher than between any other group. For example, Black girls with disabilities experience one or more out-of-school suspensions 5.53 times as often as white girls with disabilities. Native Indian/Alaska Native girls with disabilities have the next highest disparity, experiencing one or more out-of-school suspensions 2.43 times as often as white girls with disabilities. 

Current data also shows that Black girls without disabilities experience greater discipline disparities compared to white girls than Black girls with disabilities. For example, while Black girls with disabilities experience one or more in-school suspensions 2.50 times as often as white girls with disabilities, Black girls without disabilities experience them 3.56 times as often as white girls without disabilities. 

However, if data were publicly available on Black and white girls served under Section 504 only, it’s possible the disparities for Black girls with disabilities could widen. Regardless, Black girls and other girls of color face discipline at higher rates than white girls, causing them to lose critical instruction time and increasing their barriers to long-term educational and career success. 

Through its new guidance, the Department is taking necessary action to strengthen Section 504 to better set students with disabilities up for success. But that guidance is not enough.  

The Department must also improve how it collects data for the CRDC. Because only then will we have the critical information we need to understand the experiences of students with disabilities. And only then can we finally make the necessary changes that will give those students, and all students, a space to thrive.  

To see our analysis of other school discipline metrics as well as disparities between Black boys and Black girls and white boys and white girls, check out our fact sheet here.