EXCLUSIVE: Public schools civil rights director under probe; is she a scapegoat?

EXCLUSIVE: Public schools civil rights director under probe; is she a scapegoat?
Published: Apr. 24, 2014 at 11:08 PM HST
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Susan Kitsu (Image: Linkedin)
Susan Kitsu (Image: Linkedin)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The civil rights compliance director for public schools across the state is under investigation for complaints that she conducted biased investigations and did campaign work for a gubernatorial candidate on state time.

Susan Kitsu, an attorney, has been director of the Civil Rights Compliance Office at the Department of Education since 2005. The office investigates complaints about civil rights filed by students, faculty, staff and members of the public.

Kitsu went on personal leave several months ago and is under a DOE internal investigation, accused of conducting biased civil rights investigations, sources said.  The DOE confirmed an investigation into several complaints but declined to go into detail.

"I'm quite sure that she doesn't act independently, she does what her supervisors and bosses in the administration up to the superintendent want her to do," said civil rights lawyer Eric Seitz, who has been Kitsu's adversary on numerous cases.

Seitz said the Department of Education is making Kitsu a scapegoat because the state knows he's planning to file a class-action lawsuit on behalf of public school students who've been denied mental health treatments and programs.

"She is being prepared to be the fall guy for institutional failings that have been going on for a long time," said Seitz, who said he notified the education superintendent and attorney general's offices of the impending class-action case recently.

Seitz said the DOE has not upheld any of the 30 to 40 civil rights complaints he's been involved with over more than three decades, many of which ended up costing the department thousands and even tens of millions of dollars in court.

Just this week, state lawmakers approved a $190,000 settlement for the parents of three severely mentally disabled children mistreated at Kipapa Elementary School.  A judge found that the DOE conducted a poor investigation of complaints that students were abused by staffers.  One student was forced to eat her own vomit and another student was tied down to a desk and forced to watch TV for hours, according to the complaint, while another was tied down to a chair and forced to watch a painting of a frowning face for hours.

"In every single civil rights complaint that has been filed administratively, the DOE has refused to conduct a competent investigation or has whitewashed the situation," Seitz said.

Kitsu is also being investigated by the DOE for allegations that she worked on the gubernatorial campaign of State Sen. David Ige during work state time and that she forced a handful of subordinates who work for her in the civil rights office to do the same, sources said.

Kitsu stepped down as deputy treasurer of the Ige campaign in February, according to Lynn Kenton, a spokeswoman for Ige For Governor.

"Susan was one of my campaign's earliest supporters and I thank her," Ige said in a statement. "She let the campaign know when she took leave, and at that time stepped down as our deputy treasurer. Unfortunately, since that time she has not been as involved, but does continue to volunteer."

Ige has been endorsed by the Hawaii State Teachers Association, the statewide public school teachers' union.  His wife, Dawn Amano-Ige, is a vice principal at Kanoelani Elementary School in Waipahu.

In a statement, DOE Director of Communications Donalyn Dela Cruz said, "There are allegations that have led to an investigation.  To be fair to all parties, we are unable to comment on the investigation."

Kitsu, who is being represented by her union, the Hawaii Government Employees' Association, declined to comment for this story.  Kitsu's salary range is $87,336 to $123,642 a year, according to DOE records.