Reports of sexual assaults at primary and secondary public schools across the U.S. jumped by 55% in 2017-2018 from the previous two years, according to new Education Department data.
The increase in the department’s latest Civil Rights Data Collection survey “may reflect under-reporting in 2015-16, an increased sensitivity to this issue in 2017-2018, or an actual increase in incidents of sexual violence from 2015-16 to 2017-18,” the Office of Civil Rights said in a news release.
The biennial survey, which collects data from more than 17,000 public school districts comprising 50 million students, documented 14,152 reports of sexual assault during the 2017-2018 school year. Two years earlier, the same survey reported fewer than 9,500 such incidents.
Officials in the Office of Civil Rights say schools received 15 times more complaints of sexual harassment in 2019 than a decade earlier.
The numbers, while alarming, are not surprising to federal officials who track data on sexual assault. In January, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced a new effort to combat the “troubling rise of sexual assault in K-12 public schools.”
“While self-reported data poses challenges, the quality assurance measures we have put into place help make this data more reliable than ever before,” Mrs. DeVos said.
The Education Department said past collections contained “statistical anomalies” and it has worked to increase outreach to schools to improve data validity. In some instances, states with smaller populations fluctuated widely year-to-year.
Vermont, for example, had the highest rate in the nation, with 0.036 incidents of rape or attempted rape occurring per 1,000 students in 2015-16. For a state with fewer than 80,000 public school students, however, even two sexual attacks could represent statistical significance.
“We have to be very careful when using national data to talk about Vermont because our population size is so relatively small,” a Vermont Agency of Education spokesperson said in an email to The Washington Times.
According to federal data, Vermont schools — along with schools in 11 other states and the District of Columbia — reported zero incidents of rape or attempted rape in 2017-2018.
The state reporting the lowest rates of sexual assault in 2017-2018 was South Dakota (0.01 incidents per 1,000 students). Nevada (2.25 incidents per 1,000 students) recorded the highest rates of sexual assault at preK-12 schools, according to the survey.
Over a dozen state attorneys general criticized the Trump administration for updating nonbinding guidance on Title IX complaints this year, changes the administration said were needed to bring accountability to the complaints process.
On Wednesday, a spokesperson for Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who formally challenged the rules change in court, said the rise in sexual assault reports calls for a more “robust” enforcement scheme for Title IX compliance.
“In light of this data, it is even harder to understand the Department of Education’s decision to adopt a rule in May that weakened Title IX’s protections against sexual harassment and made it harder for schools to provide a safe and equitable education experience to every student,” the spokesperson said via email.
The survey data raised eyebrows on another topic of concern for education experts: the use of restraint and seclusion on children.
Federal authorities say school officials subjected more than 100,000 students to restraint or seclusion during the 2017-2018 school year. While students eligible for disability services account for 13% of the nation’s student body, they represent 80% of those pupils subjected to physical restraint, according to the survey.
Such disciplinary practices have prompted dozens of legislative attempts to prohibit or regulate the use of mechanical restraint and seclusion on children. Colorado, for example, enacted legislation in 2017 to mandate annual reviews of when school officials use a prone restraint on a student or shut a student inside a room.