In the News: Accused teachers linger on paid leave

HONOLULU STAR-ADVERTISER

Accused teachers linger on paid leave

By Nanea Kalani

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Dec 17, 2014

The union for Hawaii public school teachers says some of its members are being caught up in lengthy investigations for alleged misconduct that 7 out of 10 times results in clearance of wrongdoing by schools — but their reputations are maligned in the process.

Teachers make up the largest category of Department of Education employees on paid leave pending the outcome of internal investigations, new data shared Tuesday with the Board of Education show.

Wilbert Holck Quote

Thirty-three teachers — a mix of elementary, middle and high school educators — are among 63 DOE employees statewide on leave as of this month, according to the Office of Human Resources. All but four of the teachers are broadly accused of “inappropriate conduct toward students.”

“This whole issue of investigations and (department-directed leave) is not getting any better. In fact, it’s getting worse,” said Wilbert Holck, executive director of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, which represents approximately 12,500 teachers.

Holck said the union’s data show 52 pending DOE investigations of Oahu teachers, of which 22 are out on paid leave. The cases, on average, have been ongoing for 13 months, with the longest pending case open for “32 months and counting.”

Holck said roughly 70 percent of teachers accused of wrongdoing are “cleared,” meaning the department’s investigation concludes there was no substance to the accusations. He said one teacher is on paid leave for giving a student an energy drink.

“Once you’re accused of the wrongdoing, your reputation is tainted and there’s nothing you can do to change that, whether you’re found innocent or not,” he said, noting that the longest case in recent years took nearly 3 1?2 years to complete. “And the longer you’re kept out, the worse it becomes.”

While most DOE investigations happen out of public view, the Board of Education has turned its eye toward the department’s handling of investigations as details of individual cases have surfaced.

The board has criticized the department for lacking clear policies on what types of allegations warrant placing an employee on leave, and for the length of time it takes to complete investigations.

The department has drafted an investigation manual, which is being reviewed by the attorney general’s office, with guidelines on what circumstances warrant an investigation and when it’s appropriate to put an employee on leave.

DOE officials say cases take a long time because the department is short on investigators, some cases are complex, and due-process rights for unionized employees can prolong investigations.

Holck contends the union does its best to expedite cases.

“We very rarely ask for extensions,“he said. “I don’t think it’s us that holds this process up.”

He said a major concern about the current process is that teachers are not informed of the specific allegations made against them until much later in the investigation, after the accuser and other witnesses are interviewed.

“They’re left hanging. They’re very anxious, they’re frustrated and they get angry,” Holck said.

Barbara Krieg, assistant superintendent for the Office of Human Resources, said sometimes only a vague description of the allegations is provided to the accused employee to prevent tampering with evidence.

“There’s no cookie-cutter way to do an investigation,” she said. “There’s a lot of judgment involved.”

Several Board of?Education members took issue with the reasoning, arguing that employees have the right to know what they are being accused of and who is making the allegations.

“My sense is that the process is not fair,” said BOE?Vice Chairman Brian De Lima. “If 70 percent of those (cases) are being cleared … then it’s important, I think, that we be more transparent, upfront with the employees.”

Jim Williams, chairman of the board’s Human Resources Committee, said employees are being denied their due-process rights.

“We are not telling them of the specific charges upfront, we are not giving them the right to confront their accuser and their representatives to cross-examine witnesses. We’re not doing anything like that,” Williams said.

Krieg responded that the department has to protect both whistleblowers and those accused of wrongdoing. She said her office plans to audit the status of employees on paid leave to determine whether they still need to be out.

DOE employees on paid leave