Civil Beat filed a lawsuit against the Hawaii Department of Education on Monday in an effort to get the disciplinary records of terminated or disciplined employees that it had requested.

The DOE refused to turn over most of the records or provided heavily redacted documents in response to a  public records request last May.

“It is clear that DOE is not following the law, and this case provides an opportunity for the courts to reaffirm several principles of open government established in OIP (Office of Information Practices) opinions,” said Brian Black, executive director of  The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, which is representing Civil Beat in the case.

Board of Education Building.
The Department of Education continues to withhold much of the disciplinary information that show why teachers are being disciplined and how the DOE is handling those cases. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Under the Uniform Information Practices Act, Hawaii’s public records law, government agencies must disclose records relating to employment-related misconduct that results in termination or suspension.

Civil Beat’s request pertained to 34 recently closed cases that included five terminations, three suspensions, three reprimands, 13 voluntary resignations, nine instances of employees returning to work and one directive to review DOE policy.

Civil Beat is not seeking the identities of students, or direct contact information for anyone, the lawsuit notes. It wants the reasons for termination or discipline in the cases, the nature of the offense that gave rise to the investigation and the identities of the employees, including the school and grade level they taught at.

In its initial response to Civil Beat’s records request, the DOE provided a brief summary chart for three of the individuals. The department cited “personal privacy” and “frustration of a legitimate government function” as reasons for withholding additional information.

While the agency eventually turned over disciplinary records of five former DOE employees who were fired, the documents were heavily blacked out, providing no idea of how the cases were handled.

They included the cases of Michael Wright, a former elementary school teacher who was convicted of sexual assault charges against a minor, and Andrew Cece, a former high school JROTC adviser who was accused of touching a student on the chest and telling a student he had “drinks” in his car and that they should “go drink and have fun.”

For cases that didn’t result in termination or discipline, the DOE said it could not provide any records under the privacy exception of UIPA.

Even in those cases, Civil Beat argues in the suit that the DOE must prove that the employee “has a significant privacy interest in the information withheld” and that the public interest in disclosure doesn’t outweigh the employee’s privacy interest.

In the cases of minor reprimands, for instance, there is no reason the DOE, after redacting an employee’s name, school and other identifying information, should withhold the general description of misconduct from the public, Black said.

“DOE failed its burden to articulate the privacy interest at issue, the nature of the information withheld, or weigh the public interest in disclosure,” the suit states.

The DOE declined to comment on the suit, which was filed in First Circuit Court in Honolulu.

The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest is an independent organization created with funding from Pierre Omidyar, who is also CEO and publisher of Civil Beat. Civil Beat Editor Patti Epler sits on its board of directors.

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