Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students are far more likely to be suspended and expelled in Hawaii than students of other ethnicities, causing them to miss more school days overall, according to newly released federal data.

The latest survey by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights reveals that in the 2015-16 school year, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander students accounted for 48 percent of all suspensions, 68 percent of expulsions and 48 percent of all school-based referrals to law enforcement. Those ethnic groups comprise just 30 percent of the student body.

As the result of their disproportionate share of out-of-school suspensions, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders accounted for more than half of all missed school days among Hawaii students overall, according to the Civil Rights Data Collection, a report that is released every two years.

That’s a cumulative 41,627 days missed by suspended Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students — three times as many days missed by Asian students and six times as many as white students, the OCR data shows.

New data from the U.S. Department of Education shows a racial disparity in suspensions among Hawaii students. Alia Wong/Civil Beat

“The shocking number of days of missed learning should wake up educators that they can’t keep suspending and expelling their way to a perfect school,” said Seth Galanter, senior director of the National Center for Youth Law.

Nationally, racial disparity in terms of discipline exists among other student populations. While black students make up 15 percent of students overall, they accounted for 31 percent of all arrests or referrals to law enforcement — a jump of 5 percentage points from the last OCR survey, according to Politico Pro. Due to suspensions, black students in the U.S. cumulatively missed 5 million school days in 2015-16, whereas white students lost 3 million, according to Galanter’s own analysis.

Hawaii’s public school student enrollment in 2015-16 was roughly 182,000. One-third were Asians, one-third were Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, and white students, Hispanics and students of two or more races each comprised 12 percent, according to OCR data.

Because of the U.S. Department of Education’s system of grouping ethnicities, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders — which includes students from Micronesia, Tonga and Samoa — are lumped into one category. Hawaii Department of Education data that year shows Native Hawaiians made up 25 percent of the overall student body, while Micronesians comprised 4.3 percent, and Samoans another 3.4 percent.

Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders accounted for nearly half of all in-school suspensions in 2015-16. Source: U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights 

The newest federal discipline data largely mirrors the results from the 2013-14 school year, the last time similar data was collected.

According to a 2015 Civil Beat analysis of school suspension by ethnicity, Tongan, Micronesian and Native Hawaiian students in 2013-14 were suspended at four times the rate of their Japanese peers and twice as likely to be suspended as white and Filipino students.

In 2015-16, the net number of expulsions in Hawaii tripled from 41 to 128 within two years; that was one of the most significant jumps between reports.

Galanter, an attorney who previously worked for OCR during the Obama administration, said there is a great deal of variability among states when it comes to rates of suspension and other disciplinary action against students.

“Some states have low rates, some states have high rates,” he said. “The reality is, it’s not that the children are different, it’s that the adults are treating them differently in these states.”

In a statement provided to Civil Beat, DOE spokeswoman Lindsay Chambers said the agency “will continue to review this report, as well as our own data, to drive improvement and implement our Resolution Agreement with the Office for Civil Rights.”

“The Department holds to its commitment that there shall be no discrimination in any program, activity, or service of the public school system on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age, national origin, ancestry or disability,” she wrote by email.

According to the recent federal survey, most offenses that led to the Hawaii suspensions were caused by “incidents of physical attack without a weapon,” followed by “incidents of threats of physical attack without a weapon.”

Local advocates say the disproportionate number of suspensions for Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders is a powerful reminder of the often unique challenges within these communities, such as poverty and access to health care. Chronic absenteeism is highest among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

“(The discipline) doesn’t address the root cause of whatever brought out the behavior that resulted in the expulsion or suspension,” said Judith Clark, executive director of Hawaii Youth Services Network. “(These kids) are disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system.”

Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders accounted for 55 percent of all school days missed in Hawaii due to suspensions in 2015-16. Source: U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights 

Lois Yamauchi, professor at UH Manoa College of Education and the director of the Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence, said one factor to note is the ethnic makeup of DOE teachers and administers in relation to the student body in Hawaii.

“Teachers are not predominantly Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, we know that,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that teachers have to come from the same ethnic groups, but when they do, they tend to have better rapport and understand students.”

Yamauchi said she’s encouraged by steps the state is taking to recruit a more diverse teacher pool, including UH’s Grow Our Own teachers’ initiative.

DOE data from 2015-16 shows that a quarter of all teachers in Hawaii are Japanese, a quarter are white and another quarter is listed as “other.” Ten percent identified as Hawaiian or native Hawaiian.

The recent OCR data shows it’s not only certain races that are more likely to be singled out for suspension, but special education students as well.

Disabled students comprised 10.3 percent of the student body in Hawaii in 2015-16, but they accounted for about a quarter of all suspensions and a third of all expulsions and law enforcement referrals.

Of the disabled students who were referred to law enforcement, more than half were Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. Of those who were expelled that year, 80 percent were either Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.

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