Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and Black students have disproportionately faced police action on school grounds for nonviolent activities that could have been better solved with counseling, according to a report released Wednesday by University of Hawaii Manoa sociologists.

Analyzing data from the Honolulu Police Department for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years, researchers found that averaged between those two years, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students accounted for 58.7% of all “arrests” made on school grounds, though comprising 27% of the school population.

Black students accounted for 8.2% of the campus-based arrests by police in the same period, despite comprising only 2.4% of the student body in Honolulu schools.

Lanai High and Elementary School student walks to his class on the elementary school side of campus.
A UH Manoa report said Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and Black students were overrepresented among students arrested on school grounds. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The researchers found that these arrests were based largely on nonviolent, status-based offenses like running away from home or truancy.

An independent review by Civil Beat of the HPD files that had been provided to the UH researchers shows that arrests were also made for offenses such as “criminal contempt of court,” “criminal property damage” and “criminal trespass” among other offenses.

HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu, who emailed the files, also clarified that police use the word “arrest” broadly when officers respond to schools for offenses like truancy and runaways and does not mean students are taken into custody.

She explained that a police officer will meet with school administrators and generate a report, at which point the student is left at the school with administrators.

“Because status offenses are not criminal, the child does not qualify to be kept in a ‘detention’ facility,” Yu wrote. “The officer is to document the report from the school administrators.”

But the UH researchers said such cases could be better handled by not getting the police involved at all.

“These types of offenses don’t cause any destruction to property, no harm to anyone else,” Omar Bird, a UH sociology professor and co-author of the report, said during a Zoom call. “These are students who are being criminalized for types of offenses (like) violating curfew — behaviors police find inappropriate.”

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The researchers said the cases would have been better handled through non-punitive measures like counseling or therapy. They also warned that such citations can sow distrust between the police and historically marginalized groups.

“It’s a tremendous misuse of funds, and of concern to students and families, that their needs, community needs, are handled through the criminal justice system,” said Nandita Sharma, another UH sociology professor and co-author.

The 7-page report, “Discriminatory Policing in Hawaii’s Schools: Reliance on Police in Hawaii’s Schools is Excessive, Discriminatory, and Violates National Juvenile Justice Policies,” also found a similar pattern statewide in past years based on data submitted to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, which is published every two years.

Sharma said she and her colleagues were spurred to do the report after the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white cop last year in Minneapolis.

“As researchers, we knew we had the tools and the capacity to understand how the police work with different institutions, in this case the Department of Education, and how that played out in students’ lives,” she said on the call.

In the 2015-16 school year, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students made up 31% of the student body in Hawaii schools, but accounted for 52% of all school-based arrests. In 2013-14, Black students comprised 2% of the student body that year but accounted for 4% of school arrests, according to the federal data.

CRDC data for 2017-18, which wasn’t included in the report, shows that Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students comprised 67% of all school-based arrests among kids with disabilities and 53% of arrests among kids without disabilities, showing a similar trend to the 2015 data.

The U.S. DOE’s Civil Rights Data Collection’s survey groups Native Hawaiian students with Pacific Islander students rather than allowing separate categories. To provide a standard comparison, the UH sociologists did the same when parsing the more granular HPD data.

However, they stressed that they recognized these are distinct racial and ethnic groups that should be separately identified for more accurate reporting.

Lack Of Data

The UH sociologists’ report also criticized Hawaii’s Department of Education for failing to provide reliable data to the Civil Rights Data Collection across many years.

For instance, Hawaii education officials reported that no students were arrested or referred to police in 2006 and said the only students arrested in the 2011-12 and 2017-18 school years were children with disabilities, which the researchers said were unlikely scenarios that raised red flags about data deficiencies.

“The fact that data reporting inconsistencies have existed for at least 15 years and have not been flagged and corrected indicates serious and ongoing problems in the HIDOE’s ability to comply with civil rights data reporting mandates,” the report said.

Hawaii’s DOE has not had a chance to “fully review the source data used for this report and the assertions being made,” spokeswoman Nanea Kalani told Civil Beat in an email.

“There have been issues in the past with our data reporting for the Civil Rights Data Collection survey, which we have worked to amend and correct,” she wrote. “We’ve also recently implemented a data quality process — which includes formal data validation checks with subject matter experts and data managers/stewards — to ensure reporting requirements are met.”

A new law passed last year requires the Hawaii DOE to establish a standardized data collection practice relating to student discipline, seclusion and restraint practices, school climate and student achievement, and to provide annual reports to the Hawaii Board of Education and state Legislature.

Rae Shih, a public interest attorney with Legal Aid Society of Hawaii and a co-author of the report, said the HPD files provide more details about which kids are getting arrested and why.

“Status offenses are offenses due to your status as a minor; there are other jurisdictions that have removed status offenses from their purview,” she said. “We are hoping this policy report can spark conversations along those lines.”

Policy recommendations in the report included more school-based interventions like counseling and mental health therapy; requiring the Hawaii DOE to comply with federal and state mandates for more accurate and timely reporting of student discipline data; and seeking a more specific breakdown of racial and ethnic categories when compiling data.

Youth advocates say one way to stem student arrests for low-level offenses is by having “honest conversations” and “true collaborations between systems.”

Adult Friends for Youth, a social services organization, has teamed up with HPD’s patrol unit in Ewa/Makaha in West Oahu since August 2019 to offer services to youth who have run away from home to keep them from being pushed deeper into the juvenile justice system.

That region shows the highest number of status offenses on Oahu.

From August 2019 to February this year, HPD officers issued 611 youth citations in that area, mostly involving runaways, according to the group, which added that more than half were issued to Native Hawaiian youth.

“We receive the citation from HPD, then contact the family, share with them the citation, then say we’d like to offer services,” which often means counseling services, Lisa Tamashiro, AFY’s director of operations and special programs said in a phone interview.

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