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Resolve cases of misconduct at DOE faster

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Board of Education Chairman Don Horner neatly summed up the dilemma of Department of Education investigations that put employees accused of misconduct on paid leave for prolonged periods: Either the department is paying guilty people for months on end, or it is tarnishing the reputations of innocent ones who should be cleared to return to work. Neither is acceptable.

The case of former Kaiser High Principal John Sosa, an acclaimed school leader who retired at the end of 2012 as an administrative probe dragged on, shone an overdue spotlight on the DOE’s internal processes. That it took a public outcry to highlight such obvious weaknesses is disturbing, but now that the path to improvement is clear, the BOE and DOE must act swiftly to enact and follow policies that establish proper criteria for placing people on leave in the first place, and then ensure timely reviews of the alleged misconduct.

Achieving these goals demands cooperation from the Hawaii State Teachers Association, Hawaii Government Employees Association and United Public Workers — unions that represent DOE employees.

The vast majority of the DOE’s 25,000 employees are never accused of misconduct that results in them being removed from the job, and it’s important to acknowledge that fact.

As of Oct. 31, a total of 56 DOE employees were on paid leave while being investigated for alleged misconduct, 11 of whom had been under investigation for more than a year. Details of the accusations are confidential.

The scope of this problem is small, but the impact is broad. These long unresolved cases exact an economic toll on the DOE, and directly affect the accused employees, any alleged victims and the broader school communities.

There are several reasons cases drag out. One is a lack of investigators within the DOE. Another is a lack of training for supervisors, mainly principals, who initiate investigations. Some reflexively place employees on paid leave, when not every accusation warrants that. A third is that there doesn’t seem to be any policy compelling the DOE to hurry up. And, finally, some accused employees refuse to speak to investigators, stalling any resolution.

The DOE should tackle the first problem by redeploying department resources to train more people for this job; currently there are two full-time investigators within the DOE’s human resources office.

To address the second and third problems, the Board of Education should follow the lead of school systems such as the Los Angeles Unified School District, which specifies types of misconduct that trigger paid administrative leave and imposes a 120-day time limit to complete investigations.

The DOE’s Human Resources office has drafted a manual, which is now being reviewed by the attorney general, that spells out what circumstances warrant an investigation and when it is appropriate to put an employee on leave. This is a crucial step toward a more fair, transparent system.

It seems clear that increased public attention alone has hastened the pace of the DOE’s internal investigations. Last January, after Sosa’s case made headlines, 23 investigations had been pending for more than a year. By the end of October that backlog was halved.

Simply placing a higher priority on resolving these cases is part of the solution. Whether wrongful or wronged, no accused employee should be left to languish.

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