In May 2017 a Waiakea Intermediate special education teacher was accused of striking a student with a back scratcher multiple times and swearing at him in class. An investigation by Hawaii Department of Education officials concluded that the teacher had violated the DOE code of conduct and Board of Education ethics policies.

The then-complex area superintendent for the Hilo-Waiakea region, Brad Bennett, recommended that the teacher, Shannon Salomon, be fired, saying his actions resulted in a “breach of trust” with students in his care, as well as physical wounds.

But the DOE superintendent, who had the final word, instead decided Salomon would be suspended without pay for 10 days, citing a provision in the collective bargaining agreement between the DOE and Hawaii State Teachers Association that the DOE has the discretion to suspend, demote or discharge a teacher “for proper cause.”

Salomon remained on staff at Waiakea Intermediate and is still a special education teacher. He did not respond to several requests for comment.

Holomua Elementary School 4th grade students raise their thumbs in Mr. Suan's classroom.
An examination of DOE records shows the top school official can override a lower superintendent’s recommended action with his or her own decision. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The details above were revealed earlier this year through a DOE disclosure in response to a 2019 Civil Beat lawsuit requesting teacher disciplinary records from October 2017 to April 2018. The lawsuit was filed after the DOE refused to turn over records or provided heavily redacted documents in response to a public records request.

Civil Beat’s lawsuit pertained to 34 cases that included five terminations, three suspensions, three reprimands, 13 voluntary resignations, nine instances of employees returning to work and one directive to review DOE policy.

It did not seek student identities or personally identifying information for anybody involved. In a Nov. 19, 2020 order, a judge granted Civil Beat’s preliminary request for disclosure.

Among the 34 cases, 21 employees are no longer employed with the DOE. However, seven teachers are still there; as well as three educational assistants, one school health assistant, one school baker and one school administrator.

The records were provided after a lengthy legal battle. It took so long for the records to be produced that the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, representing Civil Beat, filed a sanctions motion against DOE in February, a year after a deadline set by a judge for the DOE to make more disclosures.

According to Brian Black, attorney and executive director of the Law Center, a “state agency not complying with a judge’s order is unusual in any context, but in a records context specifically, we certainly have not had to deal with it before.”

Civil Beat also sought records for particularly serious cases in which the employee was terminated, terminated pending arbitration, resigned in lieu of termination or resigned after a disciplinary investigation started.

The DOE had argued that turning over such files would violate the privacy of the individuals in question, but the alleged misconduct in these cases, argued Black, “is egregious and involves significant public interest.”

Last week, a judge agreed with Civil Beat and the DOE was ordered to turn over employee names, school affiliations as well as the identities of any administration officials involved in those specific instances.

This batch of cases includes eight employees who were discharged pending arbitration or quit in lieu of termination.

In one of the most high-profile of those cases, Dwayne Yuen, a former girls’ assistant basketball coach at Punahou, settled a sexual abuse lawsuit in August with the private school for an undisclosed sum. After leaving Punahou, Yuen had been hired by several DOE schools, including Moanalua High and Momilani Elementary.

The DOE later began an investigation into allegations that Yuen had sexual conduct with two minors, but Yuen quit his job in 2018 before a DOE suitability analysis could be completed.

Lengthy Investigations

An examination of the DOE records received so far show that these investigations can take months, that each employee is afforded representation by the HSTA when they become the subject of a disciplinary proceeding and that the top school official can override a lower superintendent’s recommended action with his or her own decision.

DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said certificated employees are placed on department-directed leave in situations where “credible allegations of employee misconduct arise or employees demonstrate conduct that jeopardizes the health, safety, or welfare of students or employees or may interfere with or impact the investigation.”

And if the employee isn’t officially terminated, they’re still “an active employee,” she said in an email.

Neither the HSTA nor DOE could say how many investigations were pending against DOE personnel in any given year or how many disciplinary actions are subsequently imposed.

HSTA president Osa Tui Jr. said it was the legal responsibility of the association to “make sure teachers are provided with proper due process and fair representation.”

“We expect our members to exhibit the highest professional standards as educators,” he said in a statement. “On occasion there are disciplinary problems with a very small number of our teachers each year.”

HSTA Hawaii State Teachers Association Oahu Office located at 1200 Ala Kapuna Street.
All HSTA Bargaining Unit 05 members, including teachers, counselors, librarians and registrars, are represented by the union during disciplinary proceedings. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Former Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, who inherited Salomon’s case after she assumed the helm of the DOE in August 2017, said she took into consideration the nature of the allegations, a meeting she had with the teacher in January 2018 that gave him a chance to address the accusations as well as Salomon’s “record of service with the Department.”

Salomon was a 12-year veteran of the DOE, including four years teaching at Waiakea Intermediate, on Hawaii island. He had no prior record of misconduct in the DOE.

But Kishimoto also issued a sharp rebuke in a February 2018 letter informing Salomon of her decision.

“It should not take this kind of incident to remind you that, in the classroom you are the adult; you are the professional; you are the teacher,” she wrote. “You will never strike a student. You will never swear at a student,” and should such behavior manifest, “you will certainly be subject to further discipline up to and including termination.”

The principal, Lisa Souza, who had recommended to CAS Bennett that Salomon face “serious discipline,” declined to comment on personnel matters.

Criminal Case

In a separate case, Michael Wright, the former STEM curriculum coordinator at Jefferson Elementary, was arrested and charged with felony sexual misconduct for having sex with a minor girl between the age of 14 and 16, off campus. He was arrested in September 2016, was tried and found guilty of sexual assault in January 2018, and sentenced in March 2018 to 20 years in prison.

Wright is currently incarcerated at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona and is petitioning for an appeal, according to court records.

But despite his criminal case playing out in public, records show his actual employment with DOE was not officially severed until July 16, 2018, based on a determination he “was not suitable to work in close proximity to children.”

Records show there were two such suitability analyses conducted for Wright — one upon his arrest and a second interview in January 2018, with an HSTA representative present.

Lanai High and Elementary School teacher student raises hand in class.
Most of the employees involved in the 34 cases that were the subject of Civil Beat’s lawsuit resigned or were terminated. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

According to records, Wright was placed on department directed leave — which is administrative paid leave — upon his September 2016 arrest through Oct. 19 that year. He then took sick leave from the DOE until May 2017, then went on unpaid leave.

Wright was hired by DOE after being cleared in a background check in July 2007.

A discipline page on the Hawaii Teacher Standards Board website shows Wright’s license was suspended effective Oct. 9, 2019. Suspensions cannot exceed five years, according to HTSB, which is the agency that issues teacher licenses, though revocations may occur following conviction of crimes against children and sexual offenses.

“The suspension of Mr. Wright’s license was for the duration of his license term,” said HTSB interim executive director Felicia Villalobos. “At the end of any suspension period, the teacher must reapply and the board must make a determination after review.”

The records show that many of the employees accused of misconduct left their positions.

In April 2017, Lora Dunham, a first grade teacher at Daniel Inouye Elementary, was accused of striking a student over the head so hard “it made a loud popping sound,” records show. She allegedly did this repeatedly until the student’s “eyes were watering, it looked like he was crying,” according to a teacher witness to the action. The witness said Dunham was frustrated the student was not paying attention in class.

A school investigation found sufficient evidence of the events and concluded Dunham violated the DOE code of conduct and Board of Education policy relating to workplace and student safety and welfare.

In Dunham’s case, complex area superintendent Bob Davis recommended the teacher be fired. But she was instead given 20 days of suspension without pay in early January 2018 per an agreement between DOE and her HSTA representative.

The school’s former principal, Jan Iwase, said Dunham was reassigned to a different classroom after her suspension ended, working alongside other adults so she could be monitored.

According to Iwase, Dunham later faced new allegations of misconduct but quit — six months after her suspension — before the DOE could start another investigation.

“It was a troubling time because we pride ourselves in teaching and educating our kids with aloha,” Iwase said.

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