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On the surface, Hawaii’s school suspension data paints a rosy picture of student discipline trends.
In 2013-14, less than 4 percent of students were punished with out-of-school suspensions — one of the lowest rates in the nation. At the same time, student dropout rates — a key indicator for how safe and engaged students feel on campus — are on the decline.
But there are some big disparities when it comes to which students are getting sent home for on-campus offenses, according to a Civil Beat analysis of data from all public schools in Hawaii.
In 2013-14, Tongan, Micronesian and Native Hawaiian students were suspended at four times the rate of their Japanese peers and were twice as likely to be suspended as white and Filipino students.
Schoolwide suspension rates in some of the state’s poorest communities were also significantly higher than the state average.
While more than half of Hawaii’s schools suspended fewer than five students over the course of the school year, others suspended as many as one in six.
At Keaau Middle School on Hawaii Island, roughly a quarter of students were suspended at some point in the 2013-14 school year.
Students who are suspended are less likely to succeed academically and more likely to eventually drop out, 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.
At Keaau Middle School on Hawaii Island, roughly a quarter of students were suspended at some point in the 2013-14 school year. Kohala Middle School, also on the Big Island, suspended one in six students, Washington Middle School in Honolulu one in eight. In total, 17 schools in the state posted double-digit suspension rates, according to data analyzed by Civil Beat.
We examined data for 186,213 students and 288 schools to look at student ethnicity, number of offenses — if any — committed during the year, the number of suspensions and their length.
The data provided to Civil Beat was an unofficial snapshot from the end of the school year, and does not include students who may have transferred from one school to another or moved out of state — factors which could alter school and state totals.
It’s still the most detailed public look at campus suspension rates in recent years.
Because of a mixup in how ethnicities were recorded for part of 2011-12, Hawaii is the only state that is missing suspension data in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights 2011-12 data collection. That’s meant that Hawaii has often been left out of national reports and has faced less scrutiny on discipline trends in recent years.
The state does not publish school-by-school suspension data broken down by ethnicity, but agreed to provide that information to Civil Beat after removing anything that could identify students, and on the condition that certain steps be taken in order to maintain student confidentiality.
Civil Beat’s findings were surprising to some parents and even school administrators.
“We will leave no rock unturned, if you will, to find the solution for every child,” said Chad Farias, superintendent for the Kau-Keaau-Pahoa complex on Hawaii Island. “We will see those numbers change.”
Hawaii is not alone in grappling with racial disparities when it comes to student discipline.
On average nationwide, black students are three times more likely to be suspended than white students. American Indian and Alaska Native students made up only 1 percent of the country’s student population in 2011-12, but 2 percent of the nation’s suspensions.
Crime rates, poverty, school climate, teacher supports and district discipline policies are all at play.
On average nationwide, black students are three times more likely to be suspended than white students.
Another factor is what Farias describes as “institutional grit” — the amount of effort educators are able to put into seeking out the root causes for misbehavior instead of simply sending the child home.
Increasingly, national conversations about student discipline also center on what social researchers call “implicit bias” — attitudes or stereotypes people may be unaware of having but could still impact their decisions.
Racial disparities in suspensions and expulsion rates are often greater in subjective situations, like whether a student is being disrespectful or dissing an adult, Osher said.
“It’s harder for implicit bias to take place when you have something like having a weapon,” Osher said, “versus what does it mean to be disorderly or disruptive.”
Few groups are as misunderstood or face as much widespread discrimination in Hawaii as Micronesians.
“The wide-scale discrimination against Micronesian folks is something we need to be cognizant of, because those disproportionate suspension rates map onto other social disparities,” said Jenny Lee, public policy director at Hawaii Appleseed.
Micronesians made up 4 percent of the state’s student body in 2013-14, but 7 percent of all students suspended. Along with Tongans and Native Hawaiians, they had some of the highest suspension rates in the state.
According to Civil Beat’s calculations, 5.7 percent of Tongan, 5.2 percent of Micronesian and 4.8 percent of Native Hawaiian students were suspended at least once in 2013-14.
For the same period, 2 percent of Filipino students, 1.8 percent of white students and 1.1 percent of Japanese students were suspended.
Numbers also varied greatly from campus to campus.
One of the biggest misconceptions about Micronesian children is that they are disrespectful or don’t value education, said Josie Howard, program director at the nonprofit organization We Are Oceania. Howard herself is from Chuuk.
More often than not, when a child displays destructive behavior it’s a clear communication that something is not right, Howard said.
“When you feel discrimination, when you are marginalized, when you are alienated, you feel that you don’t belong,” Howard said.
At Hilo Union Elementary School — where Micronesian students made up 14.3 percent of the student body but only 6 percent of students suspended — the key to success has been providing support services like counseling, and fostering strong teacher-student relationships, Principal Erin Williams said.
“Once a student feels comfortable with even one adult on campus, it really does change their behavior,” Williams said.
Hilo Union also prides itself on anti-bullying efforts, and all students at the school are enrolled in a character education program with counseling staff.
The school also tries to foster strong community relationships, and works to bridge language barriers by holding special open-school nights for parents whose second language is English.
The Kau-Keaau-Pahoa Area Complex on Hawaii Island — which has some of the highest school suspension rates in the state — faces a number of challenges, including high poverty and frequent teacher and administrator turnover.
On the same day that Civil Beat spoke to Farias, the area superintendent found out that two of his nine principals were leaving before the next school year.
Students move frequently as well, Farias said, which presents an additional challenge when it comes to creating a stable and supportive campus environment.
“The transiency rate area in our area is as high as 22 percent — as high as military areas, but these are families that are running away from something,” Farias said. “Some can’t pay rent or their power is turned off, they are running away from that to another place.”
Close to 90 percent of students at Keaau Middle School come from low-income families. Keaau suspended roughly one in four students in 2013-14 — the highest rate of any school in the data provided to Civil Beat.
Keaau Principal Elna Gomes said that 2013-14 was her first year running the school and it lacked a vice principal for part of the year. The school is now restructuring its behavioral support system and “reexamining our beliefs,” Gomes wrote in an email to Civil Beat.
“Despite our many challenges, my students are not ‘bad’ or ‘dangerous,'” Gomes wrote. “I can only accept full responsibility of not overseeing the administration of discipline more closely so as to prevent the over-assigning of suspensions. ”
Farias said he discusses school discipline data with principals at least twice a year. Principals look at the data much more frequently, though the focus is usually on which individual students are showing the most behavioral problems — not which ethnicities are posting higher suspension rates.
Schools in Farias’ complex area are working to improve academics and student discipline by bringing in more social supports. It was one of four in the state last year to have a registered nurse through a pilot partnership with the University of Hawaii’s nursing school and the state Department of Health.
Through a new grant, complex area schools are hiring behavioral therapists for the coming year who will also work to increase family engagement.
Student discipline is just one of several indicators that the Department of Education looks at to try and measure whether students and campuses are on the right track, said DOE Deputy Superintendent Stephen Schatz.
“We monitor our suspensions and serious behavioral incidents, but we try not to make (the numbers) in and of itself the end goal, because then you can end up with situations where students are not suspended when in fact something merits it,” Schatz said.
Examining attendance, academic achievement and student behavior all together paints a clearer picture. And in that regard, Hawaii is doing well, said Schatz, who also pointed out that suspensions have been on the decline statewide for several years.
Still, the Board of Education may soon push schools to reduce suspensions even further.
The BOE has been considering a new School Climate and Discipline policy that would require campuses to make suspensions a last resort.
The policy was first brought to the full board in May, but a vote has been delayed until August so that school administrators can have more input.
“The policy is a good opportunity to look at how do we address the root causes of student behavior,” Farias said.