Editorial: Reduce overuse of school suspension
The same thing that makes public education a bedrock institution is part of its particular challenge: It accepts all students, including those who may not be an easy fit in standard classrooms.
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The same thing that makes public education a bedrock institution is part of its particular challenge: It accepts all students, including those who may not be an easy fit in standard classrooms. Making the adjustment is no simple task.
Even so, overuse of some disciplinary tools, such as suspensions, does not yield any true solution. Keeping problem students out of the classroom makes things worse as that child grows into a difficult adulthood.
Statistics strongly suggest that Hawaii’s Department of Education has an overreliance on suspensions, and the punishments meted out are unusually long. And the recipients of this kind of discipline in public schools here have often been Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders and students with disabilities.
Last week, the Hawaii Disability Rights Center filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), part of the U.S. Department of Education. The center is seeking a federal investigation on behalf of the 17,591 students the state DOE identified as students with disabilities during the 2018-19 school year.
The center announced the filing on Monday, in a joint news conference with the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii. The ACLU sent letters to DOE high school principals asking them to reduce where possible out-of-school suspensions.
The basis for the requested investigation is the finding in the federal Civil Rights Data Collection for the 2015-16 school year, the most recent year of data available. In Hawaii public schools, according to the center’s complaint, students with disabilities who are suspended miss on average 95 days of school — more than half the school year.
By comparison, the center cited the average 44 days per 100 suspended students with disabilities on the mainland.
“Hawaii is a huge outlier, as far as students with disabilities,” said Jane Preece, the center’s staff attorney.
What is not clear from the statistics is whether these are students in special education classes or those with a disability that allows them to be “mainstreamed” into regular classrooms. In any case, an extreme shortage of trained special education teachers is a known, longstanding issue, one that only exacerbates the problem.
Hawaii DOE spokeswoman Lindsay Chambers said current data on the special-education staff shortage for the 2019-20 academic year won’t be available until enrollment figures are finalized in September.
But according to the Hawaii State Teachers Association, about 23 percent of the roughly 2,200 special education (SPED) teachers last year were not licensed to teach SPED.
Further, there are shortages across the board, which means the less experienced or emergency-hire teachers may lack the preparation to manage behavioral problems in Hawaii classrooms.
Chambers said the department is confronting the issue, and although she said precise figures had not been cleared for release, she added that suspensions are on the decrease. That is certainly something that must be spelled out if the Office for Civil Rights does look into the Hawaii situation, as it should.
In addition, she said, some of those away from regular class for an extended term could have been documented as on suspension but then referred to an alternative learning program. That would soften the effect, as well, but also needs clearer accounting.
However they address the underlying staffing problem — through established mentoring programs, recruitment or other means — state schools must not turn excessively to prolonged suspensions as a coping strategy.
Students belong in the classroom, and once estranged from education, their problems do not evaporate. They will not be an easy fit in the larger community, either.