The Hawaii Department of Education is refusing to release records that show why teachers are being disciplined, including a number of actions taken against teachers who have been fired in recent years. That makes it impossible for the public and parents to check up on what’s happening to bad teachers and where they are ending up.
The DOE gave the state Board of Education a list of misconduct cases last year during a public meeting, a list that contained very little information. Some of the 34 closed cases included in that list are now more than a year old.
When Civil Beat asked for more details, the DOE refused. Spokeswoman Lindsay Chambers said handing over the information would “violate employee and student privacy.”
But Hawaii’s public records law, the Uniform Information Practices Act, says otherwise. Under the law, public agencies must disclose specific information about employees who are suspended or fired for misconduct who have exhausted the grievance process. Such information must include a summary of allegations and findings of fact.
Civil Beat has been trying to get information on DOE’s employee misconduct cases since May, when we filed a public records request.
In June, the DOE gave us a summary chart that revealed very little. Despite the fact we requested information on 34 closed cases, the list included only three names, the board policy that had been violated, and the school where they worked.
So, for instance, all DOE would say about fired DOE employee Andrew Cece was that he worked at Kapolei High and was let go for “violation of DOE Code of Conduct” and an “investigation of suspected violations.”
Eventually, with the law center’s assistance, we got documents for five disciplined DOE employees. All were heavily redacted. Some were so blacked out it was hard to tell what was going on or how the DOE handled the allegations.
For instance, it took a Google search to find out that terminated DOE employee Michael Wright, a former Jefferson Elementary teacher, had been convicted of sexual assault against a minor and sentenced to prison last year. News stories said the conviction involved a minor, who didn’t attend the school, occurred over a period of five years and that he was sentenced to 20 years in prison as a result of that criminal investigation.
But the DOE letter to Wright that the department eventually released to us suggests he was reprimanded for the way he asked for a leave of absence from the department. Because it’s redacted, it’s hard to make sense of that letter or learn how the DOE handled his case, and no one from DOE would talk about the criminal conviction.
A second follow-up redacted letter we got from DOE wasn’t any more helpful. It references Wright’s September 2016 arrest and a “suitability analysis” that concludes the DOE found him “not suitable to work in close proximity to children.”
Not only did the department provide only limited information, officials took months to produce some records.
We asked for misconduct records from a very limited time frame of October 2017 to April 2018. Under state law, a public agency has 30 days from the date a final decision is rendered in a misconduct investigation to turn over records (if an employee resigns or retires during a pending investigation, that counts as a final decision). It took until late October — many months after we first filed our public records request — for us to get any documents.
One of those records was for Cece, the fired Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps instructor at Kapolei High School who became the subject of “multiple complaints” in early 2017.
A redacted final investigation report shows that Cece watched a student change into a JROTC uniform in a classroom, tried to coerce a student to have drinks with him and touched a student in the chest area.
“DOE cannot summarize written records in a chart form and claim to have satisfied a public records request.” — Brian Black, The Civil Beat Law Center
But DOE blacked out so much information in that report it’s unclear what the exact nature of the complaints entailed, or whether they could possibly rise to a sexual offense. It’s also unclear if the school referred that case to law enforcement. Cece doesn’t turn up in a Google search so any information about where he ended up would have to come from the state DOE.
And we’re still waiting for records from the other 29 closed cases.
When we inquired about the department’s slow response time and refusal to turn over the rest of the records, Chambers wrote in an emailed statement the DOE used to provide such updates about employee misconduct cases only in closed-door BOE meetings. In an effort to be more transparent, DOE “agreed to rework its updates to be able to report on employee misconduct cases during the public portion of Board meetings.”
She added that the DOE puts “fewer than one-half percent of our employees” on leave pending an investigation.
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