KHON2 examines school misconduct probe backlog

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Public school is back in session this week, with more than 13,000 teachers trusted to do their best with our kids. But what happens when they don’t, and find themselves accused of misconduct?

A KHON2 investigation found out just how long these cases can drag on.

KHON2  found it takes far too long to get a bad teacher out, or to clear a good teacher’s name.

Of the recent high-profile public school misconduct cases, some are so bad they’re even criminal, like Warren Harada the former business manager at Waipahu High School who stole nearly $500,000 in school funds.

But other school misconduct cases are often shrouded in mystery.

KHON2 asked the Department of Education for disciplinary records covering the past five years.

KHON2 had to turn to the open-records law to get anything, and over the four months since KHON2 filed, the cases have been disclosed in a trickle of one-page summaries, a handful of incidents at a time. They’re shocking, from sexual comments to children as young as middle-schoolers, to physical abuse, to financial shenanigans, even support staff sleeping on the job.

Schools statewide seem to have the same problems, and those are just the cases KHON2 dug up so far.

A handful of the records show the offenders are fired; more are suspended, most for one day. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

“What happens is teachers are out forever and unfortunately the investigative process takes much too long,” Hawaii State Teachers Association Executive Director Alvin Nagasako said. “I’ve seen between three weeks and year, because there is a huge, huge backlog.”

What’s more, they may be on paid leave that whole time, even if on paper the suspension portion is just a day. The case against them might end up not proven, or the charge gets withdrawn.

“We really want to push it along because when the teacher is out that long, it’s like an implied admission of guilt,” Nagasako said.

KHON2 took the matter straight to the top — the superintendent of public schools, and asked her: Is there anything that can be done to expedite the outcomes, whether it’s because you have to get a bad teacher out or get a good teacher back?

“Unfortunately,” State Department of Education Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi said. “The number of trained personnel who can handle a high level investigation is fairly limited in the DOE.”

Limited as in one; one permanent person in the department-level Investigations Unit.

“It’s an area that until recently had no one,” Matayoshi said. “The last three to five years is when we start to say, hey wait a minute, these are important matters to the personnel involved, we need to make sure there are professionals who are investigating this.”

“They’ve got one person now. They’re starting to take on more of the investigations from the schools, the more complicated ones,” Matayoshi said. “They’re also looking at some of the cases that have been languishing a bit because people are not quite sure what to do next.”

There are so many languishing cases that some frustrated regional offices are trying to do it themselves — some complex areas are shifting dollars to hire their own investigators.

“I really do think we need more trained personnel to support the schools and the state offices in the investigations,” Matayoshi said.

But she says a reorganization could take six months or a year to put it on paper, then open it up for hiring. Then it takes money and a green light from the board and lawmakers.

KHON2 went to the Senate education chair, who says she’ll try to start work on this before the next session.

“Knowing what I know now, it’s about sitting down and working together to reach that end goal,” Sen. Jill Tokuda said. “We all want to make sure that resources are directed into the classroom to support our teachers to support learning but this really is an issue.”

But not the only issue.

“Some of it is just the delays in the process, asking for documents and not getting them back quickly, looking for more documents,” Matayoshi said.

Is the union partially to blame? KHON2 asked HSTA: Are they dragging out the investigations?

“Our job is to protect our due process, and I’m telling you if they do it right, they do it right,” Nagasako said. “Good teachers would be the first to say get rid of bad teachers.”

“In cases where there’s something significant and the evidence is clear, and we can get that evidence in a timely way, it can move pretty quickly,” Matayoshi said.

In the time since KHON2 started our investigation, the DOE has put some temporary positions in place in the Investigations Unit for this school year, using left over federal money — in this case impact aid to pay for it.

“At the end of the day we just all want to make sure that our children our safe, we want to make sure that due process is provided to all individuals,” Tokuda said, “and I think that really means that we have the capacity to do what we need to do in a timely manner.”

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