The Hawaii Department of Education was among several large school districts cited in a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report pointing out discrepancies in the number of incidents of restraints and seclusions reported for the federal government’s civil rights data collection and the actual number of incidents that took place.

By and large, school districts around the country erroneously reported “zero” instances of restraint or seclusion in the 2015-16 school year when in fact those districts had missing data or weren’t collecting such data at all.

“However, only one of the 10 districts with more than 100,000 enrolled students that reported zero incidents, Hawaii Department of Education, reported to (the U.S. Education Department) that the zeros actually represented zero incidents,” the GAO report states.

But the state now acknowledges that was “inaccurate.”

Hawaii Department of Education did not collect any data on the use of restraints in schools in 2015-16. Civil Beat/2010

In a statement provided to Civil Beat in the wake of the GAO’s June 18 report, the DOE acknowledged it had not been collecting data on restraints and seclusions in 2015-16.

“Any confirmation of total statewide restraint incidents that occurred during the 2015-16 school year would therefore be inaccurate,” Heidi Armstrong, assistant superintendent for the Office of Student Support Services, said in an emailed statement.

While it’s still unclear why the Hawaii DOE didn’t provide accurate figures, this latest national dialogue sparks the question of where the DOE today stands on its monitoring of schools’ use of restraints and seclusion.

The practice of secluding a student, or “involuntarily confining” a student in a room was barred by the passage of a 2014 state bill that became Act 206. That same law called for curbing the use of physical restraint except when student behavior poses “an imminent danger of property damage or physical injury” to the student, peers or staff.

The impetus behind that legislation was the disturbing number of reports of incidents that involved students with disabilities and special needs, said state Rep. John Mizuno, who introduced the 2014 bill.

The legislation generated a lot of support, including from the Special Education Advisory Council, whose chair, Ivalee Sinclair, wrote in her testimony that there had been “shocking examples, even in Hawaii, of special education students being tied to a tree or desk, or kept in isolation without proper supervision.”

Retired Honolulu attorney John Dellera recalled hearing about “recurring instances” of inappropriate restraints in schools, including an instance in which a vice principal on the Big Island was using duct tape on a child with autism.

“It was essential,” Dellera said of the legislation, which was signed into law by then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie. “The harm that was being done to the child is hard to overstate.”

Act 206 required the DOE to begin reporting the number of students restrained starting with the 2016-17 school year.

According to DOE records shared with Civil Beat by the ACLU of Hawaii, 67 of Hawaii’s 292 schools recorded at least one case of a student being restrained in 2017-18 and 66 schools statewide recorded at least one case of student restraint in 2018-19.

The exact number of cases is unknown due to redactions in the records. Any number less than 10 cannot be disclosed, due to student privacy concerns.

However, the records do reveal that the cases span elementary, middle and high school levels, DOE schools and public charters. Those cases predominantly consist of students who receive services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or Section 504, which also protects students with disabilities.

At a handful of schools, students in the general population or who were designated as English language learners were restrained, according to the DOE records.

An issue brief by the U.S. Education Department from 2014 states that although students with disabilities represent about 12% of the population, they comprise 75% of those who are physically restrained and 58% of those who are secluded nationwide.

While the feds have been requesting school districts’ data on the use of restraints and seclusions for several years, this year was the first the GAO was asked by Congress to look into those reporting practices.

In its June 18 report, the federal watchdog agency found that one-third of U.S. school districts with more than 100,000 enrolled students — including Hawaii’s — reported zero instances of restraint and zero instances of seclusion in the 2015-16 school year.

Overall, 70% of more than 17,000 school districts across the U.S. reported zero incidents.

But much of this was inaccurate, according to GAO: “These erroneous reports were detected either by the media or in the course of larger investigations by the (U.S. DOE) into restraint and seclusion, rather than by any systemic review of the CRDC data,” the report states.

A 2016 memo issued by the Hawaii DOE lays out a plan for further monitoring of the issue, including staff training and data review.

It mentions a plan to hire and “build a cadre of certified trainers in all 15 complex areas” and to build an electronic database to track such training and certification. Act 206 released $225,000 to the DOE to achieve such goals and the DOE projected it would need $225,000 to $375,000 annually to sustain such efforts.

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