There are serious problems with the U.S. Department of Education’s efforts to track the use of restraint and seclusion in schools, government investigators say.

The Education Department’s quality check system largely overlooked the fact that 70 percent of school districts across the country reported zero incidents of restraint and seclusion, practices which are disproportionately used on students with disabilities.

There is also no mechanism to flag districts with especially low or very high rates of restraint and seclusion. And, the agency had no way to notice that 590 school districts indicated that more students were restrained or secluded than there were incidents of the practices.

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That’s according to a report out this week from the Government Accountability Office.

Investigators with the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress analyzed restraint and seclusion data collected from public school districts nationwide for the 2015-2016 year, the most recent available. They found that the Education Department’s quality control processes are “largely ineffective or do not exist.”

What’s more, in interviews with officials at school districts, GAO determined that there were inconsistencies in their interpretations of the definition of restraint and seclusion in the Education Department’s every-two-year data collection, leading to different counts.

Ultimately, GAO concluded that “it is impossible to accurately determine the frequency and prevalence of restraint and seclusion among K-12 public school students.” And, the data is so flawed that investigators said the Education Department would not have the information to assess if restraint and seclusion are being used in excessive or discriminatory ways.

“It is extremely alarming that even though we know that students, particularly students with disabilities and students of color, are being secluded and physically restrained at school, the Department of Education still can’t provide us with quality reporting to understand the scope of the problem and begin to solve it,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

GAO recommended that the Education Department update its safeguards to require school districts to double-check if they report zero instances of restraint and seclusion, flag those with very high or low incident numbers and catch illogical entries. In addition, the agency should take steps to help schools address factors leading to inaccurate reporting and better clarify the definitions of restraint and seclusion, the report said.

The Education Department said it agreed with GAO’s recommendations and planned to implement them.

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