EXCLUSIVE: Former DOE official sues department

EXCLUSIVE: Former DOE official sues department
Published: Sep. 29, 2015 at 10:56 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 29, 2015 at 11:20 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The former head of the Department of Education's civil rights office has sued her former bosses, alleging that the DOE suppressed civil rights investigations, improperly shredded important documents and mishandled the department's policy for reporting child abuse.

"I believe the teachers and students are being cheated," said Susan Kitsu, who headed the DOE's Office of Civil Rights Compliance for about a decade.

"I raised these issues for many years because I truly believe our resources need to be utilized properly."

Kitsu was suspended last year and was fired earlier this month.She alleged that she was retaliated against because she supported Gov. David Ige's campaign. She said Ige in the past has been critical of her boss Kathryn Matayoshi, a supporter of former Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

According to Kitsu's lawsuit, Matayoshi removed her office from a number of civil rights cases and outsourced several investigations to private law firms and investigators. Among those cases was an age and race discrimination suit by 71-year-old Big Island resident James Johnson, who applied for more than 60 job openings and was rejected each time.

Johnson told Hawaii News Now back in 2013 that he was given this advice: "He says, what do you mean you don't have a job. You have three strikes against you. You're old, you're white and you're male. This is the DOE. Live with it."

The DOE was later forced to hire Johnson and pay him $30,000 to settle the suit.

Johnson's attorney Eric Seitz has filed about 30 lawsuits against the DOE over the last several decades. He said Kitsu's lawsuit is revealing.

"It basically confirms to me that they never really had any real interest in protecting or expanding civil rights," said Seitz.

Meanwhile, the department said its investigates all allegations of civil rights violations. It would not say why Kitsu was fired but did say that it was done after a thorough investigation.

But Kitsu's lawsuit doesn't only complain about civil rights enforcement. She also alleged that Matayoshi and the department violated state procurement law, ordered staff to stop collecting gender equity data and improperly shredded important documents.

She also said that back in 2013 Matayoshi and other DOE officials mishandled the department's policy for reporting child abuse, which is required by law.

That occurred just after the department settled allegations of decades of physical and sexual abuse at the Hawaii School for the Deaf and Blind. The state wound up paying $5 million to the victims.

Matayoshi later implemented a reporting policy but only after a number of principals and DOE staffers made inquiries on how they should proceed.
"There are lots of places where I've seen obligations to report misconduct which basically is not done because the ruling mentality at the Department of Education is to circle the wagons," said Seitz, who also represented several former students at the Deaf and Blind School.

Kitsu said she has was never disciplined nor reprimanded during her first two decades as a state employee. That changed in December 2013 when she was named Deputy Treasurer of Ige's election campaign. Within weeks, she said she was suspended and placed under investigation by the DOE.

Kitsu said she never campaigned on state time or on state property but said her superiors often voiced their support other elected officials in the office.
Her lawsuit also alleged that the DOE office resembled a hostile workplace, where Matayoshi, her executive assistant Presley Pang and Deputy Superintendent Ronn Nozoe and Assistant Superintendent Stephen Schatz often uttered profanities in front of staff.

She asked the department to investigate their alleged behavior but nothing was done.

"(It was) horrible, absolutely horrible because I know what it's like when things are done the right way and things are not being done the right way," she said.

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