Two local civil rights organizations, the Hawaii Disability Rights Center (HDRC) and the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawai‘i Foundation (ACLU) urge the Department of Education (DOE) to reform school suspension practices as the school year begins. The HDRC has also formally asked for federal investigation in response to suspension patterns toward students with disabilities revealed by local school data. Data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection show Hawaiʻi to be the worst state in the nation for public school students with disabilities: they lose 95 days of instruction time per 100 students enrolled due to suspensions, which is 53 days more than students without disabilities, who lose 42 days per 100 students enrolled.

  • The HDRC filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, over the number and disparity of out-of-school suspensions received by students with disabilities. In Hawaiʻi, students with disabilities are suspended for more days than any other state.
  • The ACLU of Hawai‘i sent open letters to 15 Complex Area Superintendents, detailing the out-of-school suspension rates in key high schools and urging principals and DOE officials to follow best practices and use alternatives to suspension instead. Suspension data reveals disturbing trends. In addition to concerns over suspension of disabled students, race information collected also shows that Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander and Asian students lost the most instructional time in Hawai‘i compared to other states, with 75 and 24 days lost per 100 students enrolled, respectively.

Louis Erteschik, Executive Director of the Hawaii Disability Rights Center said: ”We believe that the over reliance by Hawaii’s schools on suspension of students with disabilities is a violation of their civil rights. DOE’s lengthy and frequent suspensions have been well-publicized in the Star Advertiser; Civil Beat,  and in the annual report of the Special Education Advisory Council. DOE must  have been aware of its high suspension rate for years. However, it has not made public any new programs, policies or studies to address the issue. It  has seemingly been completely ignored by DOE.  In the weeks since this has received significant press attention, we have attempted to contact DOE to try to determine if it has any plans to address its high suspension rates.  We have received no meaningful response. This is a failure of its mandate to provide for the education of children with disabilities. It suggests students with disabilities are subjected to treatment which is different from the treatment to which similarly situated students without disabilities are subjected. This leads to the unwarranted exclusion of students with disabilities from educational programs and services, and violates their right to a Free Appropriate Public Education. For that reason we believe that the Federal Government needs to step in and investigate how the DOE is treating students with disabilities.”

ACLU of Hawai‘i legal fellow Rae Shih said: “We are here to say to Complex Area Superintendents: you can stop this today. You are in a unique situation to do so. No Hawai‘i public school student can be suspended for more than ten days unless the Complex Area Superintendent specifically approves of such a long suspension. That approval should not be given unless there are no viable alternatives and there is a compelling reason to approve suspension. Right now, our most vulnerable students and their families face suspensions of over three months. This is unnecessary. Alternatives to out-of-school suspension are becoming the norm in other states – and are already in use in some of our local schools. Long and unnecessary suspensions can be avoided, and better educational outcomes achieved, with strong and student-centered DOE leadership that respects civil rights and civil liberties of all.”

The letters sent to the Complex Area Superintendents detail not only disparities in out-of-school suspensions, but best practices recommendations and technical assistance from the ACLU of Hawai‘i.