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In response to a Honolulu Civil Beat lawsuit, First Circuit Court Judge Bert Ayabe last week signed a summary judgment order that requires the Hawaii Department of Education to release the names and investigation records of teachers who were fired or suspended between April 2017 and April 2018.

Beyond those suspended or fired, the order also requires that DOE release records for investigations of alleged misconduct with the names of those investigated, witnesses and any students redacted.

In total, the order applies to the records of 34 “closed” misconduct cases sought by Civil Beat.

Hokulani Elementary School kids.
A judge has sided with Civil Beat that disciplinary files on teachers should be made public. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Brian Black, executive director of The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, who represented Civil Beat, noted that the law is clear that the media and the public should be able to get records on terminations and suspensions once action has been finalized.

But he said it’s also important to access records, even without the release of the names involved, in cases of a disciplinary investigation that results in an exoneration.

“There’s still a basic need for the public to understand the process and the basis of the department’s decision,” Black said.

The judge’s order is much broader than the school system’s initial response to Civil Beat reporter Suevon Lee’s May 2018 request for disciplinary records in those cases.

The DOE first provided only minimal detail about two suspended employees and one who had been terminated. After pushback from Civil Beat, DOE provided heavily blacked-out information about those three cases, plus the cases of someone who had been fired and another who had been suspended.

The records for those employees offered few clues about the details of the misconduct or how the cases were handled by the department

There were no documents released about the other “closed” misconduct records, which included some DOE employees who were exonerated, some who resigned and some who were terminated pending arbitration.

For those cases, the DOE cited the privacy exception of the Uniform Information Practices Act, Hawaii’s public records law.

DOE referred questions about the recent order to Hawaii’s State Attorney General’s Office, which represented the agency.  The AG did not return a telephone call or email from Civil Beat.

The Value Of Transparency

Pushing for more government transparency and more accessible public records has always been a top Civil Beat priority.

We feel that access to discipline records, particularly for public employees such as police and corrections officers or educators, is particularly essential for public accountability.

“More troubling is that the agencies where there is high public interest are the agencies where it’s most difficult to get information,” Black said.

In 2016, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that police officers don’t have an absolute right of confidentiality regarding their personnel records, in response to a Civil Beat lawsuit that sought the names of 12 officers suspended for wrongdoing.

Civil Beat is also pursuing the arbitration records that allowed HPD Sgt. Darren Cachola to stay on the job after the department fired him following a 2014 domestic violence incident that was caught on a surveillance video in a restaurant.

The police union, the State of Hawaii Organization for Police Officers, filed a grievance to block the release. Cachola was arrested again for domestic violence earlier this year.

Earlier this month, at Civil Beat’s request, the Supreme Court agreed to take up the case.

Civil Beat also recently made a public records request for the names and records of Department of Public Safety corrections officers who have been disciplined or suspended. DPS responded by saying the records would cost $11,000.

Black said that the police and the prisons are among the most difficult agencies to obtain records from — and among the most important, since officers have a lot of discretion over individuals and can use force.

Educators, he noted, also have lots of contact with children and lots of discretion. “There’s a huge public interest in knowing that these individuals aren’t involved in wrongdoing,” Black said.

Black called Ayabe’s decision an “interim order” in the DOE legal case.

We’ll evaluate any redactions that may be made once the records are released and may request more information.

Read the court order here:

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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