When it comes to student discipline, few punishments are more harmful to at-risk kids than out-of-school suspensions and expulsions — measures that alienate students from the school environment and set them back academically, researchers say.

That’s why the Hawaii Board of Education is considering a new discipline policy that would make suspensions an action of last resort — and why a local advocacy group is raising alarm bells about the lack of public data in Hawaii in recent years about which student groups are being suspended the most.

The debate over whether Hawaii should modify its approach to student discipline comes during a big national push to reduce suspensions and expulsions — punishments that disproportionately impact students of color and that researchers say contribute to a “school to prison pipeline.”

Enrolled Students vs. Suspended Students

Student suspensions by race in Hawaii.

Hawaii has faced less scrutiny than other states in recent years about its suspension rates, in part because it is the only state to have incomplete suspension data in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights current data collection. Because of that, Hawaii is often left out of national reports on discipline trends. The state also does not publish school-by-school suspension data broken down by ethnicity.

Closer Look at Suspensions

Overall, Hawaii tends to post lower than average suspension rates. In 2011-12, the state suspended roughly 5 percent of public school students. The national average was 6.1 percent, with some states suspending as many as 25 percent of students.

Still, Hawaii may have a problem with suspensions.

A report due out later this month from Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice is expected to raise some red flags about possible inequities among who is getting kicked out of the classroom.

“I think it is sensible to hypothesize that there is a problem (in Hawaii), and it’s worth digging deeper because these patterns are found in almost every other jurisdiction across the country,” said David Osher, a national expert on school safety who is currently a fellow at the American Institutes for Research and also works as an investigator for The National Center on Safe and Supportive Learning Environments.

Appleseed found a likely correlation between higher suspension rates and high enrollments of  low-income, multiracial and Native Hawaiian students.

Hawaii Appleseed started looking at school suspensions back in 2012, after several affiliated advocacy groups across the country began exploring the topic.

National studies have shown significant racial disparities when it comes to school discipline, with students of color in many districts getting suspended at far higher rates than their peers.

In Hawaii, more attention has been focused on disproportionate minority contact in the juvenile justice system than in public schools. A 2012 study by University of Hawaii researchers, showed that Hawaiian and Pacific Islander youths are arrested at a much higher rate than their peers.

The overall state school discipline numbers are also revealing.

Asian students made up 39.1 percent of the state’s public school enrollment last year, but accounted for 18 percent of all students suspended. Meanwhile, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders comprised 34.7 percent of students but 51.5 percent of all suspensions. White students represented 17.5 percent of students and 12.1 percent of suspensions.

Analyzing suspension data on a micro level proved difficult for Appleseed. The organization submitted multiple information requests to the DOE for school-by-school discipline data broken down by race and disability status, but was told that the only data on school discipline was what had been submitted to the Office of Civil Rights.

Because the OCR — which collects a slew of performance data from states biennially — was missing information on suspensions for students without disabilities in Hawaii for 2011-12, Appleseed decided to look for other ways of examining possible inequities in student discipline rates.

What Appleseed found by comparing individual school suspension rates to school enrollment demographics, is a likely correlation between higher suspension rates and high enrollments of  low-income, multiracial and Native Hawaiian students.

In other words, the more low-income students a school has, the greater the likelihood that the the school will post higher than average suspension rates. Appleseed found similar indicators for schools with high Native Hawaiian enrollments.

“Because we don’t have the school by school information about which students are being suspended, all we can say is there is a red flag between demographics and suspension rates,” said Jenny Lee, Hawaii Appleseed’s Public Policy Director.

It’s important to be able to look at suspension rates on the individual school level, Lee said, because the data can reveal not just places where a student group is being disproportionately disciplined — but it could also highlight schools that are performing beyond expectations and may have lessons to offer on how to create a positive school climate.

“We’ve got a lot of positive things working in our favor, but we can’t also ignore  a potential elephant in the room,” Lee said.

And, Osher said, in every state data is especially important when it comes to tracking issues where implicit biases may be in play.

This map reflects public high school suspension rates presented to the Board of Education in May. The boundary data for public high school districts is from the Hawaii Office of Planning.

“If you’re not collecting data and using it transparently, then what you are also saying is ‘trust me,’” Osher said. “I never believe in ‘trust me’ anyway.”

The Hawaii DOE says it was never informed by the OCR that its 2011-12 data was incomplete, and was unaware of the issue until contacted by Civil Beat last week — despite multiple national publications in the last year listing Hawaii as missing information.

The DOE does track discipline data by school and race, spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz said. The DOE is now trying to track down and correct the issue with its OCR submission, and has agreed to provide school level data to Civil Beat in the coming week.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education said the office was unaware of any data problems in the current round of biennial submissions, which are due in August.

Why Suspension Rates Matter

Tracking and reducing suspensions is important because research shows that suspending students not only removes them from learning, but it disconnects them from the school, Osher said.

Students who are suspended are less likely to succeed academically and more likely to eventually drop out, Osher said.

In addition, many people involved in the juvenile justice system, from district attorneys to juvenile court judges, are now saying that exclusionary discipline contributes to the criminalization of kids.

“If you take a kid who may be at all behaviorally troubled and you put them on the street, what do you expect to happen?” Osher said.

Studies of suspensions have consistently failed to find  evidence that they make schools safer, Osher said.

Nationally, racial disparities among the number of suspended students tend to be greater in situations where discipline is subjective, such as deciding when students are being disruptive or disrespectful, Osher said.

“While people may not be be intentionally doing it, we know from social research there is a thing called implicit bias,” Osher said. “It’s harder for implicit bias to take place when you have something like a student having a weapon versus what does it mean to be disorderly or disruptive.”

Hawaii is already doing fairly well when it comes to suspension rates, Lee said, but because school exclusion can have such a negative impact on students, it’s important to still continue examining the issue.

“We want to be making sure we minimize disparities,” Lee said. “And make sure kids are in school and that out-of-school suspension is really a last resort.”

A Softer Approach to Discipline

The proposed BOE School Climate and Discipline policy would require campuses to create school climate goals and work to keep kids in school whenever possible.

Although the policy was first brought to the full board for a vote in May, the BOE decided Tuesday to defer voting on the policy for a second time, after receiving complaints that school principals haven’t had enough input.

One concern raised at the May board meeting is that there may be a financial burden for schools when it comes to providing educational services for students with in-school instead of out-of-school suspensions.

Principals have also voiced concern that the policy makes it seem as if they play a role in deciding when students get arrested for campus crimes, something they say is up to law enforcement.

BOE meeting on sex education. 16 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

State Board of Education members discussed the proposed new policy regarding school suspensions at their Tuesday meeting.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

There are currently about eight schools in the state that have law enforcement officers stationed on campus, BOE member Nancy Budd said. The policy would also require schools to define the role of any school-based law enforcement officers.

Those law enforcement officers are not DOE employees, and there is often no memorandum of understanding in place about what the officers’ roles are on campus.

And police academies in Hawaii currently offer no specific training on adolescent behavior, said David Hipp, executive director of the Office of Youth Services.

“The role of the officer shall be primarily focused on safety and reducing inappropriate student referrals to law enforcement. Such officers shall not be involved in routine disciplinary matters,” the policy states.

Before school administrators issue suspensions, they would have to document in writing their reasons for suspending the student and provide for “meaningful academic instruction and behavioral supports” while the student is removed from class.

“Schools should remove students from the classroom as a disciplinary consequence only as a last resort and only for appropriately serious infractions,” the policy states.

BOE Chair Don Horner said he generally supports the policy, adding to the likelihood that it might pass at a future meeting if the DOE can garner more support from the administrators who would be tasked with carrying it out.

The policy is currently slated to come back before the board in mid-August.

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