The Hawaii Department of Education released revised data Thursday on the total suspended days students received in the 2015-16 school year, an effort to correct what it says was erroneously reported data to federal officials that nearly doubled the count.

The total days of suspension in 2015-16 was only 40% of the number initially reported to the U.S. Department of Education as part of its Civil Rights Data Collection, while 93% of the suspensions were for less than 10 days, superintendent Christina Kishimoto said at a Board of Education meeting.

She said the DOE originally reported the latter in reverse.

“Hawaii falls in the national average and not the worst in the nation as was reported in the media — it’s based on data we reported,” she said. “It’s important we correct it as quickly as possible.”

Board of Education Meeting.
Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, left, Board of Education member Kenneth Uemura and BOE member Bruce Voss during a January  meeting. The board Thursday voted to approve certain changes to student misconduct code. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The release of the revised data — which must still be signed off by the U.S. Department of Education and verified by an outside contractor hired by the Hawaii education department — addresses what state education officials say was erroneously collected data on suspensions in 2015-16.

Those initial figures resulted in scrutiny from civil rights organizations of Hawaii’s track record.

In an August 8 letter to the U.S. DOE Office of Civil Rights requesting to amend data, Kishimoto said the state education department had counted the number of suspended days per school by each individual offense, even if a single contained incident included more than one offense, such as “fighting and (also) having contraband,” according to an example a DOE spokeswoman provided via email.

This caused duplication of counts, according to DOE.

Kishimoto also wrote in the letter that self-reported race designations were counted twice in the collection, such that suspensions for certain subgroups like Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, for instance, were inflated in the results.

The 2015-16 Civil Rights data collection led to critical reports by nonprofits like the American Civil Liberties Union and subsequent news stories highlighting the high rate of suspensions in Hawaii by news outlets, including Civil Beat.

ACLU analysis of that original data portrayed Hawaii as an extreme outlier, noting that students here reportedly lost 41 days out of 100 due to suspensions. That compared poorly with the national average of 23 days out of 100.

Its analysis also contended that Hawaii was the worst state for suspensions for students with disabilities.

According to Hawaii DOE’s revised data, however, the number of special education students suspended is reduced by 47% from the original number while the number of Pacific Islander students suspended is reduced by 45%.

Kishimoto said at Thursday’s meeting that she had met with leaders of the local ACLU chapter earlier in the morning. But she did not go into further detail on the extent of their conversation.

Federal civil rights data collection occurs every other year. The 2015-16 collection required for the first time school districts to report the number of days missed due to suspensions.

In an Aug. 9 letter to principals and complex area superintendents, Kishimoto, who became school superintendent in August 2017, assured school leaders the DOE had taken “swift action to file a request for correction” to the feds and reinforced that the department values “accurate data reporting to ensure equity and quality supports” for students.

Also on Thursday, the board of education voted to approve revisions to Chapter 19, the student misconduct and discipline code. Such changes include reclassifying bullying and harassment as a “Class A” offense for high school students. It also voted to approve changes to Chapter 89, the code governing student complaints against adults, including requiring adults to report any harassment or bullying of a student who is in a protected class.

The revisions must still get the go-ahead from the state Attorney General and then be approved by the governor.

Heidi Armstrong, assistant superintendent in the student support services office, told board members the department is committed to finding alternatives to suspensions.

“Suspension alone is not going to make a difference, so there has to be follow-up,” she said. “We’re looking at alternatives, like alternative learning centers or sites where students can go.”

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