Calls on NJDOE to Correct Deficiencies in Annual Student Safety Report
This May, the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) finally published its mandatory annual report on “Student Safety and Discipline in New Jersey Public Schools.” The report, released seven months after the statutory deadline, differs markedly from prior year versions by limiting the presentation to a single year rather than providing multiple years of data for comparison purposes. The Department’s omission of comparative data significantly reduces the report’s usefulness to local school officials, administrators, teachers, and parents.
To provide more complete information, Education Law Center has analyzed key issues in the current year report. Our findings are provided below.
No Year-to-Year Comparisons
The NJDOE’s surprising decision to exclude previous years’ data from the current report creates difficulty in making important year-to-year trend comparisons. The Department states that it removed prior year data because the NJDOE is using a “new reporting system” with “improved definitions.” But many of the substantive definitions are enshrined in state law and have not changed, including the definition of harassment, intimidation, and bullying. Based on those definitions that have remained consistent, ELC analyzed the data published in the current report alongside trends from previous years’ reports.
Increases in Violence, Substance Use, and Bullying
A comparison of the current report with the 2015-16 and 2016-17 reports reveals that the number of reported offenses increased most notably in the categories of violence, substance use, and bullying, with a 26% increase in overall incidents from 2016-17 to 2017-18. The lack of more detailed information from the NJDOE makes it unclear whether the increases in reported offenses are due to increased efforts to combat underreporting or an increase in the number of offenses.
Figure 1: Reported Offenses in Violence, Substance Use, and Bullying
Disparities in School Discipline
Four percent of all public school students were suspended at least once last year, and 33,220 students received at least one out-of-school suspension, leading to the loss of 150,024 student school days.
Racial disparities in student discipline continue to be a major concern across the state. Black students were suspended at significantly higher rates than any other racial group and at nearly three times the rate of White students. In addition, male students and high school students were also suspended at higher rates. Although federal reports have previously estimated New Jersey suspension rates by race and gender, this is the first time the NJDOE has released this data. Given these alarming statewide disparities, ELC recommends that the NJDOE include suspension rates by race, gender and grade level for each district on future school report cards.
Figure 2: Suspension Rates By Student Demographic Characteristics
Non-Mandatory Police Referrals
This year’s report also separates mandatory and discretionary police reports. 62% of 7,449 police referrals resulted from discretionary decisions by school officials, and a total of 1,385 students faced school-based arrests. ELC recommends that the NJDOE disaggregate this data by student age, race/ethnicity, and gender on school report cards to allow local school officials to address disparities.
Figure 3: Mandatory and Discretionary Police Reports
Expulsion Rates Impacted by Definitional Decisions
New Jersey’s expulsion of 31 students appears surprising at first glance, but this is because the NJDOE’s definition of “expulsion” varies significantly from the federal definition. Using the federal definition – removal from school for the remainder of the school year or longer – 1,207 students were “expelled,” including 1,176 students who received some form of educational services after the expulsion.
The NJDOE reported only 31 students as meeting their stricter definition of expulsion: the cessation of all education services to a student. Yet, even this number is troubling. NJDOE regulations permit expulsion after the provision of alternative education and the commission of a second expellable offense, but expulsion without any educational services, even under those circumstances, raises serious constitutional concerns. ELC recommends significantly enhanced reporting for this group of students, including by age, race/ethnicity, gender, school district, offense, prior expellable offense, and type and duration of alternative education provided.
“NJDOE’s responsibility is to provide reliable, in-depth information to districts, administrators, and the general public so educators, parents and their communities can work together to reduce incidents of violence in our schools. The absence of year-to-year comparisons thwarts this effort,” said ELC Legal Fellow Rich Frost. “We call on the Department to release next year’s report on time and with all relevant information and trend data, even if it reveals troubling patterns and concerns. Understanding the violence our students face is critically important and we need a complete picture in order to meet this challenge.”
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