Chapter 19, the Hawaii administrative law governing student misconduct and discipline, came under fire from federal officials last year for its vagueness, lack of grievance procedures for students alleging harassment on the basis of race, sex or disability and its lack of a provision to notify students and families where and how to file complaints.

The student disciplinary code, the feds concluded in a letter sent to school superintendent Christina Kishimoto in January, does not comply with federal laws designed to protect students against race, sex and disability-based harassment.

Now, under the terms of a settlement struck with the federal government late last year, the Hawaii Department of Education is poised to revise Chapter 19 for the first time in a decade.

Board of Education meeting. Catherine Payne .
The Board of Education is being asked to approve changes in DOE procedures for handling student misconduct and discipline. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

DOE officials are expected to present to the Hawaii Board of Education on Thursday proposed amendments to Chapter 19 that seek to fill in those gaps flagged by the federal government.

The proposed amendments include a “clear and easily understood explanation” of where and to whom to file a complaint of bullying or harassment based on those protected classes; “reasonably prompt time frames” for the stages of a school investigation into an incident; definitions and examples of what may constitute race, sex and disability-based harassment against students; and notice of potential remedies for parties, among other provisions.

If the board approves the amendments, the education department will hold hearings to collect public input and feedback on them before the end of the year, according to a compliance timeline drafted by the DOE.

“The HIDOE is committed to providing a non-discriminatory learning environment that provides equal access to public education for all students and embraces the values of dignity and respect for one another by strictly prohibiting protected class discrimination, including harassment and sexual harassment,” a memo from Kishimoto’s office stated ahead of Thursday’s meeting.

The proposed amendments have already drawn a number of public comments.

The question is whether beefing up and expanding the language in the student disciplinary code will actually lead to a safer school climate for tens of thousands of Hawaii public school students who claimed they were victimized in past school years.

“A disciplinary context is, in my view, inadequate if that’s all they’re talking about,” said Honolulu attorney Eric Seitz, who recently filed a lawsuit against the DOE accusing it of “systemic failure” to appropriately handle complaints of student harassment and bullying. “If it’s just words on a piece of paper without resources and training, it doesn’t make a difference at all.”

His proposed class action — filed on behalf of three families whose kids were allegedly bullied and in some cases, physically harmed, without appropriate school response — outlines incidents that took place in recent months, after the DOE entered into the resolution agreement with the feds.

Those alleged incidents took place at Mililani Middle School, Wailuku Elementary and Castle High.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that about 20,000 Hawaii kids were the victims of bullying or harassment in recent school years. Nearly two-thirds of students reported being bullied based on their race, sex or disability. Nearly half the alleged victims said they didn’t report the incidents since they felt school officials wouldn’t take any action.

The DOE is also expected to present at Thursday’s Board of Education meeting a proposal to repeal Chapter 41, the civil rights policy and complaint procedure for student complaints against adults, and replace it with a new rule.

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