Kauai school feels brunt of investigation backlog

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Recently KHON2 uncovered an extreme backlog at the Department of Education when dealing with complaints that rise to the level of investigations, with just one permanent position in the administration-level unit dedicated to the task. It’s part of a deep divide centered at one Kauai school.

Kapaa Middle School’s principal is the subject of multiple investigations and complaints, put on leave at the end of last year, back again this school year. Whether he’s in the wrong or wrongfully accused still hasn’t been officially resolved, and it has his detractors and supporters alike at wits end.

Kapaa Middle School has about 600 students, by the numbers doing a lot better now than years ago, with reading test scores doubled, math test scores quadrupled under Principal Nathan Aiwohi.

Aiwohi told KHON2, “I think this is the best Kapaa Middle School has ever been in its existence.”

Not everyone sees it that way.

“It’s been hell for the teachers,” said retired teacher Les Mizumoto, “even the students.”

It’s like a tale of two cities but at the same small-town school. What is going on? Depends who you ask.

“I found Nathan to be a lot more helpful than the previous administration had been,” former PTSA President Robert Perdue said.

But another former PTSA President Jack Yatsko said, “I feel tremendous sadness for those teachers that suffer under his reign.”

Critics tell KHON2 there have been 87 complaints lodged, whether with unions, the administration, even the state Civil Rights Commission, though only 4 have become formal cases or investigations.

“Can those many people be wrong,” Yatsko said, “or have it in for somebody?”

Supporters say, yes — they say it’s a campaign targeting a principal who is finally cracking the whip. The school used to hold one of the top spots in number of assaults on campus and one of the bottom in academics.

“I think the majority of teachers are pretty good,” Perdue said. “But all it takes is a couple of teachers that don’t want to do what the administration is trying to accomplish and it’s very easy for them to throw a monkey wrench into the whole process.”

Some teachers take issue with that saying they’re the ones being targeted, pushed out or placed on leave, enduring the doldrums of sometimes years long investigations.

“I started in 2001, and the number of teachers who are still there, I swear I can count on one hand,” retiree Mizumoto said. “There have been individuals persecuted for no good reason.”

Mizumoto admits to his own run-ins with Aiwohi, calling Mizumoto’s own alleged conflict with a student blown out of proportion. He says others have had it far worse with years-long suspensions unresolved.

Others say Aiwohi’s the one under the microscope facing exaggerated charges with the Department of Education moving at a snail’s pace to figure out if accusations are right or wrong and get it over with.

“They’re not able to make a snap decision and get things taken care of on a timely basis,” Perdue said.

Meanwhile the outcries against Aiwohi are frequent and vocal, calling him autocratic, dictatorial even hostile. The principal’s critics launched an online petition last spring to oust him. A petition in his favor popped up a few days later. The principal was put on paid leave within weeks, finishing the school year off campus.

“I do know that investigations are very thorough and, the purpose for that thorough investigation is the benefits of our students, our staff, productivity, and the health and safety of everyone on campus,” Aiwohi told KHON2.

Now with school back in session, parents got this letter from the Complex Area Superintendent William Arakaki to “welcome the return of Principal Nathan Aiwohi.”

Of four formal investigations involving Aiwohi, DOE says three are done — two ended up nothing wrong or findings of “no cause.” One concluded he violated DOE policy by asking for support during school time for the petition in his favor. DOE say the fourth case left is just about done.

So why is Aiwohi back when teachers say others under investigation would have had to stay out until the bitter end?

“I don’t think it’s fair,” Yatsko said. “If they’re going to take a teacher out while they’re investigated, that’s not fair that different rules apply.”

The DOE says it’s not a double standard, telling KHON2 in a statement: “If the individual being investigated is not deemed a safety threat to the school environment, he or she can remain in the position to fulfill their role…” teachers or principals alike.

Even some supporters say they’re surprised to see him back too, but for different reasons.

“I look at him and I go, man, if that was me, I’d have thrown in the towel and said, you know what, forget you guys. I don’t want anything to do with this,” Perdue said. “I don’t know how he puts up with it to be honest with you.”

There may be more of it on the way, with other parents pledging the fight is still on unless there’s a 180-degree shift in Aiwohi’s leadership style.

“My goal is basically to serve at Kapaa Middle School as long as I can be productive in helping our students to achieve the best that they can,” Aiwohi said.

“The situation won’t go away,” Yatsko said, “and Mr. Arakaki knows that the community is really split.”

Arakaki, the DOE area boss on Kauai, said in the welcome-back letter they “will continue to address public concerns.” They’ll do so with one permanent position in investigations and a handful of temps paid for with excess federal funds in the time since KHON2 started looking into the backlog.

KHON2 went back to the DOE on Wednesday just as our investigation was going to air to ask DOE just how much longer to get both sides a final answer on the final case. They say it should be closed in a couple of weeks.

 

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