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Penn Law alumna Rae Shih L’18 aims to reform school discipline as a fellow with the ACLU of Hawaii

March 25, 2019

Rae Shih L’18 joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Hawai’i as a Legal Fellow in September 2018. Shih graduated from Penn Law last year after completing a joint Master in Public Policy degree with the Harvard Kennedy School. As a fellow, Shih has been focusing her work on issues related to school discipline. She recently spoke with Penn Law’s Office of Communications about her fellowship experience so far.

Penn Law: Tell us about your fellowship. What problems are you responding to and what are your goals?

Rae Shih: My fellowship goal is to decrease the number, frequency, and length of school suspensions and reduce the number of school-based arrests. This means in part capping the length of school suspensions at a number between seven and ten days, and bringing the number of tobacco-related arrests to zero. In Hawaiʻi, students are being suspended for as many as 92 days total for minor offenses, sometimes in conjunction with a school-based arrest. Such harsh policies deprive students of learning opportunities and create an adversarial relationship with perhaps the one state institution in their lives that can offer support. In turn, long suspensions and arrest records make dropouts, adult arrests and incarceration, teenage pregnancy, and unemployment more likely. 

We are working on changing the mindset that student misconduct or misbehavior can be punished away. Instead, we want schools to focus on trauma-informed strategies and address school climate issues at large so that students can stay in school. 

To achieve these goals, I’m meeting with and submitting data requests to the Department of Education, police, prosecutors, and the judiciary for information on these suspensions and arrests tied to race, disability, gender, and more. I’m working with a team at ACLU National to analyze this data in a way to determine if and what disparities exist. I’m also meeting with local advocacy groups and other legal services organizations to get a better understanding of the issues communities face. By attending public meetings and submitting testimony to the Board of Education on proposed regulatory language changes, we remain connected to the community. I’m lucky to have student volunteers from the Penn Law Civil Rights Law Project researching several constitutional and state statutory issues. 

In addition, I’m researching the prevalence of ad hoc suspensions for students with disabilities, where the parent or guardian is called to pick the student up from school early because the student is exhibiting behavior that is a manifestation of their disability. This is a violation of several federal civil rights laws that protect students with disabilities because it denies students an education.

PL: What are the demographics of schools in Hawai’i, across socioeconomic, racial, and other lines? How do they differ from other parts of the U.S., and how do the disciplinary issues play out differently as a result?

RS: Racial disparities are evident in many areas of juvenile and criminal justice. While the same types of racial disparities exist here as on the mainland, the groups affected are different. I’m particularly interested in the impacts these overly punitive suspensions and unnecessary arrests have on Hawaiians, students from the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau, and Filipino students, because of the history of discrimination these communities have faced here. Several state agencies collect data disaggregated by Asian subgroup, which is one way Hawaiʻi can be a leader for the nation.

PL: How did your experiences before and during law school lead you to this project or public interest generally?

RS: Prior to law school, I taught high school math at a charter school in New Orleans. My kids all lived through Hurricane Katrina, and you could tell which grade they were in when the storm hit based on what basic skills they did not know. It was then that I realized how constricting bad state policies could be; for instance, I had a student get a B in my class but I was told she would fail because of absences. The school’s solution, because of the state’s seat time policy, required kids to sit in a room after school to “make up” this time, thereby missing valuable classroom time and falling behind their peers. I became a policy analyst drafting state legislation to address state laws like these.

While sound education policies can make a difference, none of that matters if a student doesn’t feel safe coming to school. This is what I learned when interning at the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights under President Obama. It was there that I first delved into civil rights work in education. Later, I interned at the Southern Poverty Law Center and New York Civil Liberties Union working on education-related litigation strategy research. My pro bono work while at Penn Law with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia centered on representing individual students with disabilities in cases against the school district for not receiving mandatory education services. I also worked with the General Counsel at the Camden City School District on matters related to running a school system.

PL: So far, what accomplishment during your fellowship are you most proud of?

RS: I’m really excited to have built relationships with several advocacy organizations and state agencies that have resulted in data sets created for our use and analysis, as well as future avenues of collaboration that did not exist before. For instance, our affiliate is fairly unique in being able to work directly with police and prosecutors offices to obtain student arrest data. Part of this comes from the small, interconnected nature of many agencies here and the spirit of aloha.

Earlier on in my fellowship, I published an op-ed on behalf of the ACLU of Hawaiʻi warning against over-penalizing bullying rather than focusing on addressing student trauma and school climate issues. I am looking forward to continuing to share with the public all that we have learned.

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To read more about current and past Penn Law fellows, click here