There is a disturbing statistic with teenagers 13 to 14 years old who get arrested and head down a path out of public school and into the criminal justice system. Countless teenagers are discouraged every day because they do not understand the lessons being taught by their teachers.

Data shows that many of these teenagers have learning disabilities, histories of poverty, or abuse. Instead of focusing on additional educational and counseling programs, they are isolated, punished, or pushed out. Those who drop out of school early on might be more likely to find themselves involved in troubling situations.

Disrupting the pathway to prison will require an honest examination and intrusive interventions by the state of Hawaii Department of Education to play a significant role in addressing and decreasing childhood trauma in Hawaii.

Trauma experienced by children ages 0 to 24 years old is the single biggest predictor of adverse outcomes in adulthood, which include poor physical and mental health, substance abuse, and negative behaviors.

Children living in poverty who have one or more parents incarcerated, are the victims of abuse or neglect, or are homeless often experience a range of traumatic and toxic stress. This stress can harm a child’s brain development and physical, social, mental, emotional, and behavioral health and well-being.

Halawa prison guard near 'Main Street' as inmates traverse from modules to modules. file photograph from 2015 December.
The state prison in Halawa in 2015. Sadly, teenagers 13 to 14 years old who get arrested may head down a path out of public school and into the criminal justice system. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

In 2013, the Healthcare Association of Hawaii conducted a comprehensive study on Kauai to, among other things, uncover the needs of vulnerable populations, many of which are individuals of native Hawaiian ancestry. The study revealed that teens who drop out of school have a diminished ability to advocate for their own health and wellness compared to their peers still enrolled in school.

According to a 2003 U.S. Department of Justice report, 75% of America’s state prison inmates and 59% of federal prison inmates did not complete high school. The state of Hawaii Department of Education reported a 14.2 % student dropout rate in 2017, amounting to 25,546 students.

Since high school dropouts are more likely to experience incarceration and poverty, it is imperative that the Department of Education identify students with trauma who are likely to drop out, assess their needs, and provide them with the services to ensure their success.

During the 2018 legislative session, the Legislature acted to support Alternative Learning Centers by providing direct funding to Olomana School and High Core. The direct funding for High Core, which provides alternative education and supplemental education for Aiea, Radford, Moanalua, Mililani, Leilehua and the Waialua complex schools, has allowed the Central District to keep SPED positions at Leilehua High School and Mililani High School.

Alternative Learning Centers provide education programs with a safe and engaging environment that encourages the student to follow a productive path rather than giving up entirely.

Early Intervention Trauma Screening

In addition, in the following 2019 legislative session, Senate Bill 388 was introduced in partnership with Kinai ‘Eha. A nonprofit program, Kinai ‘Eha aims at providing an alternative education and training option to vulnerable youth 14 to 24 through workforce training in the construction trades, community service, life skills and leadership development.

Senate Bill 388 was enacted into law as Act 271 in June 2019 and it requires the Department of Education to establish a task force to create a system for evaluating and assessing all children and those who are exhibiting emergent or persistent behaviors, academic challenges, or chronic absenteeism and are in need of appropriate supports and interventions accessible within the continuum of a multi-tiered system of supports.

With the implementation of early intervention trauma screening, the Department of Education will play a critical role in providing visibility and appropriate care to address root cause issues that if unaddressed will lead to higher occurrences of student academic underperformance, behavioral issues and long-term health disparities; all precursors to school dropout and the pathway to prison.

We need to remain committed to challenging the school-to-prison pipeline.

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