Last year’s release of federal school discipline data for the 2015-16 school year showed a big racial disparity among school suspensions in Hawaii, one that disproportionately affects Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

But it is the sheer number of instructional days missed in Hawaii as the result of school suspensions and arrests that is drawing the attention of a national civil liberties group in the wake of the federal data.

“We always see Hawaii as this outlier, as far as the frequency of suspensions, the punitive amount of suspensions, but also when it comes to Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiian students — the state has arrest rates that are multiple times the national average,” said Amir Whitaker, a policy attorney with the ACLU Southern California chapter.

In town last week to participate in a panel organized by ACLU Hawaii, Whitaker introduced a new tool he’s created to search school by school in Hawaii to see how many total days students have missed and which student groups are most impacted:

The interactive tool uses data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, a biennial survey of public schools required by the Office for Civil Rights.

For the 2015-16 school year, the most recent school year in the survey, the federal government included for the first time the category of number of school days missed due to suspensions.

According to Whitaker’s analysis, that number in Hawaii far outpaces the national average. Around the country, there were 23 days lost to suspension per 100 students, but in Hawaii, there were 41 days per 100 students.

And Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students in Hawaii lost 75 days of instruction per 100 students, according to his analysis.

Furthermore, he found that students in Hawaii are arrested at a rate three times the national average while arrests for students with disabilities tops the nation.

Hawaii’s public school population in 2015-16 was about 182,000. Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students comprised one-third of the student body, but accounted for 48% of suspensions, 68% of expulsions and 48% of school-based referrals to law enforcement, according to federal data.

Unlike many other states, Hawaii does not limit the number of school days a student can be suspended.

Under Chapter 19, Hawaii’s school discipline code, a student can be suspended for up to 92 days for serious offenses, including possession of a dangerous weapon or possession or use of an illicit drug or intoxicating substance while at school or a DOE-sponsored event.

Assistant Superintendent Heidi Armstrong, third from left, at a public hearing last year to discuss revisions to Chapter 19, the student discipline code. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat

“School principals approve suspensions of 1 to 10 school days; suspensions exceeding 10 days are approved by the complex area superintendent and may be appealed,” wrote Heidi Armstrong, the assistant superintendent for Office of Student Support Services, in an email to Civil Beat.

She added that school administrators consider five factors when deciding disciplinary action: the nature of the offense, offender’s intention, impact of the offense, offender’s age and whether the student was a repeat offender.

“Although a student may miss a physical day of school, they are guaranteed alternate educational activities and other appropriate assistance, which may be outside the traditional school environment, at another time of day, or at another location,” she said.

Armstrong sat on the the ACLU Hawaii “School to Prison Pipeline” panel last week. Several audience members said they were dissatisfied with the extent of information provided by the DOE regarding the racial disparity in suspensions.

“I would hope the DOE would take a lead in being the system that says, ‘We are mirroring what’s happening in larger society and we need to do better than that.’ We need to put funding toward addressing bias and the effects of bias,” said Chris Santomauro, a former DOE special education teacher.

Armstrong, in her email, said the DOE has seen an “overall downward trend” in school suspensions since the 2015-16 school year.

She said the DOE will make that data public in the fall.

The discipline search tool Whitaker created follows two reports from the ACLU’s Southern California chapter and the UCLA Civil Rights Project. The first, published in August 2018, is titled “11 Million Days Lost: Race, Discipline, and Safety at U.S. Public Schools.” The second of those reports was published in March and is titled, “Cops and No Counselors: How the Lack of Mental Health Staff is Harming Students.”

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