Students in Hawaii miss nearly twice as many school days due to suspensions as their peers nationally, and children with disabilities, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are hardest-hit, according to an American Civil Liberties Union analysis of federal data.
The percentage of public school students suspended is well below the national norm — 3.5% here versus 5.3% nationwide — the 2017 Digest of Education Statistics shows. But students in the islands are put out of school for much longer periods.
Overall, the statewide average was 41 suspended days total per 100 students in an academic year, compared with the national average of 23. And the amount of time on suspension varies dramatically among student groups and schools in Hawaii.
Locally, students with disabilities lost 95 days total per 100 students, while the figure for Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders was 75; black students, 34; white students, 28; and Asian students, 24.
“In Hawaii, kids are suspended way longer than almost every other jurisdiction,” said Rae Shih, legal fellow at the ACLU of Hawaii. “It’s highly punitive compared to other jurisdictions.”
“And when there’s racial disparity, we are just putting certain kids out for very long periods of time, and I think that in and of itself is alarming,” she said.
The figures are in a 2018 report, “11 Million Days Lost: Race, Discipline and Safety at U.S. Public Schools,” from the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the ACLU of Southern California. It is based on the most recent figures in the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, which are from the 2015-16 academic year.
Public schools in Hawaii may suspend students for up to 92 days for a wide range of offenses, from fighting to vaping, and principals have discretion in setting the punishment.
Heidi Armstrong, assistant superintendent for student support, stressed that students receive educational services even when sent off campus.
“When a student is suspended for 10 or more days, they have to receive schooling,” she said. “We don’t want any students out for 92 days, but sometimes there are things that need to happen such as drug treatment prior to their return to school.”
Speaking at a June 6 forum hosted by the ACLU of Hawaii, she acknowledged and lamented disparities in suspension rates among different groups.
“A high number of our special-needs students do receive suspension, and that is something we are working on addressing and getting to the root cause,” she said. “We don’t want to see that. We also don’t want to see the number of Pacific Islander and Hawaiian students being higher.”
At the forum, the ACLU unveiled its new online “dashboard,” which spotlights Hawaii public schools with the highest rates of suspensions and arrests and has a data visualization map.
“These are the islands of Hawaii, and the red rings represent the suspension rate for schools where students lose twice the national average days due to suspension,” said Amir Whitaker, staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California.
“You see a lot of hot spots,” he said. “Those are not volcanoes erupting. They are children being deprived of their educational opportunities.”
Highlands Intermediate School in Pearl City had the most instructional days lost due to suspension, followed by Nanakuli High & Intermediate and Waianae Intermediate.
Principal Amy Martinson of Highlands Intermediate said Thursday that during the 2015-16 school year, when the data was gathered, suspension days spiked because administrators busted a group of students selling marijuana on campus.
“That year was a really crazy anomaly,” she said. “It wasn’t very many students, but they were long suspensions … anywhere from 45 to 92 days,” she said. “I took into consideration the severity of the offense. … I have an obligation to the rest of my student population because the parents want a safe environment, drug-free.”
“Our (suspension) average is very, very low because we have support programs in school,” she said. “They can go to a behavior modification program instead of being suspended, where students are tutored all day long by regular teachers.”
Statewide the two most common offenses leading to suspension are drug violations and harassment, according to Mel Decasa, federal compliance lead for the Department of Education’s Data Governance section.
He questioned the methodology of the dashboard, specifically the “days per 100 students,” which masks whether a student is suspended for a day or a semester.
“In my personal opinion, if we’re looking at missed days, I’d look at students by categories, how many have missed under 10 days, how many have missed 11 to 30 days,” Decasa said. “That would be more meaningful.”
The ACLU says suspension makes students more likely to drop out and can feed a school-to-prison pipeline. It advocates policy changes, such as limiting the number of days a student can be suspended to five and “ending school arrests that criminalize youth for common adolescent behaviors.”
“A lot of jurisdictions have eliminated out-of-school suspensions or capped them at 10 days,” Shih said.
Because Hawaii’s discipline code doesn’t specify what sanction goes with what violation, suspensions vary widely from principal to principal, Shih said. Students can be suspended for “reasonably appearing to be under the influence of a drug — and that includes tobacco or vaping on campus,” she said.
The ACLU dashboard also highlights schools with high arrest rates on campus, according to information retrieved from the Civil Rights Data Collection.
Eight of the top 10 schools were on neighbor islands. The top three were Pahoa High & Intermediate School, Molokai High School and Hawaii School for the Deaf and the Blind. At Pahoa, 4.1 students were arrested out of every 100 students, the dashboard showed. Statewide the figure was less than 0.5%, or 0.37 arrests per 100 students.
National data on school arrests is spotty, with several large school districts in 21 states failing to report any arrests to the Civil Rights Office, including New York City and the Los Angeles Unified School District, according to ACLU research.
In Hawaii, Martinson said police officers, not principals, determine whether to charge a student with a crime.
“For possession of any kind of illegal drugs, we have to call the police because they have to come by and pick up the drugs,” she said. “The decision (about arrests) is entirely up to the Police Department.”
No matter who makes the decision, Darcia Forester, deputy public defender for the state and Family Court supervisor, said the decision to arrest a student has lasting consequences.
“If you are a juvenile and you are being arrested in school, you are handcuffed, there is a blue-and-white that is ready to receive you and you are taken to a police station,” she said. “Your parent is not in that car.”
“It doesn’t matter how nice or kind the officer may be,” Forester said. “The trauma of being handcuffed and taken to a police station like a criminal has long- standing impacts, especially if it’s a minor offense or if you’re not guilty.”
Hawaii suspends a lower percentage of its public school students than the national norm, but students are put out of school for much longer.
Percentage of students suspended in an academic year.
Source: 2017 Digest of Education Statistics, National Center for Education Statistics
This chart shows the total number of days of out of school due to suspension, per 100 students, per academic year. Hawaii is twice the national average.
DAYS SUSPENDED, PER 100 STUDENTS
Category: All students / Asian / Black / Hawaiian & Pacific Islander / Latino/ White / With disabilities / without disabilities
Nation: 23 / 4 / 66 / 30 / 17 / 14 / 44 / 20
Hawaii: 41 / 24 / 34 / 75 / 31 / 28 / 95 / 35
Sources: “11 Million Days Lost: Race, Discipline and Safety at U.S. Public Schools,” by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, using data from the U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection, 2015-16 academic year.
SUSPENSION DAYS IN AN ACADEMIC YEAR
Statewide average: 41 days total per 100 students
TOP 10 SCHOOLS FOR SUSPENSION
SCHOOL NAME / TOTAL SUSPENSION DAYS PER 100 STUDENTS
Highlands Intermediate 352
Nanakuli High & Intermediate 309
Waianae Intermediate 301
Waianae High School 275
Kaiser High 194
Waipahu Intermediate 190
Pahoa High & Intermediate 184
Kailua High 179
Kapaa Middle 178
Molokai High 154
CAMPUS ARRESTS IN AN ACADEMIC YEAR
Statewide average: 0.37 arrests per 100 students
TOP 10 SCHOOLS FOR ARRESTS
SCHOOL NAME / ARRESTS PER 100 STUDENTS
Pahoa High & Intermediate School, 4.1
Molokai High School 3.8
Hawaii School for the Deaf and Blind 3.6
Waimea High School 3.6
Waimea Canyon Middle 3.5
Kauai High 3.3
Kapaa High 3.2
Kohala High 3.1
Waimea Middle Charter School 3.0
Waianae Intermediate 2.6
Source: ACLU of Hawaii and ACLU of Southern California dashboard, online at www.tinyurl.com/ACLUHItool. Based on U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection, 2015-16 academic year.
To see the online dashboard, go to tinyurl.com/ACLUHItool.