HONOLULU (KHON2) — Controversy has erupted over one of Hawaii’s largest mainland providers of public school distance learning. Some parents call the content sexist and racist, while the founder of Acellus says a small handful of nearly 1 million video lessons have been flagged and removed.

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As Always Investigating reports, education for tens of thousands of students and millions of dollars are at stake

Dueling petitions ask the Hawaii Department of Education to cut or keep Acellus, and decisions are being made by principals standing both for and against the company.

Dr. Roger Billings, founder of Acellus, told KHON2 that out of its millions of students nationwide, he’s never had the number of complaints as he’s gotten from Hawaii in recent weeks. Billings says he believes it’s a smear campaign linked to competitors and to disputes that arose when he left the Mormon Church.

The Hawaii DOE gave students two options for school this year: stick with their campus or enroll in 100 percent distance learning for the entire school year. For most of the distance learning students, that means school is online with Acellus Learning Accelerator.

Billings said Accelus has 3 million students nationwide but Hawaii has been its biggest recent single growth area, with about 80,000 students participating.

Subtract several hundred from that number since Aliamanu Elementary’s principal told parents Sunday it was pulling the plug, cancelling all student accounts for what the principal called “inappropriate and racist content.”

“It’s not perfect,” Billings said. “We have problems we need to fix that are identified every day and we take care of them quickly.”

Acellus told Aliamanu that it took out a clip where a character named”Sweetie Lips” is asked about the origin of her name, another clip where a character says he’s been running from police, and the whole series readings about a bear learning to care.

Acellus is looking into whether to change references about Barack Obama from the first Black president to the first African American.

Recently the company removed a clip of an old video of Walt Disney introducing Grumpy, one of the dwarfs from “Snow White,” as a woman hater.

“Everything they’ve accused us of having in Acellus that’s bad, we’ve removed because they seem to be offensive to some,” Billings said.

A Change.org petition launched a few days ago calls on the Hawaii DOE to cut ties with Acellus and adds links to the now withdrawn content along with more clips parents take issue with, like a recent phonics lesson where G stood for “gun.” More than 1,000 had signed that as of Monday afternoon.

Acellus launched its own petition to support ongoing use in the islands. It was nearing 1,000 signatures Monday.

The anti-Acellus organizers and other parents online and in social media take issue with the company’s founder, leveling allegations of personal misconduct. Billings says those accusations are false, are motivated by backers of a competitor’s product sold by Brigham Young University, and can be traced to a BYU Hawaii professor. BYU Hawaii did not respond to requests for comment.

“Since I left the Mormon church, it’s been a very nasty fight,” Billings said. “They said I have done very bad things, even molested children. You know there’s a lot of very, very hurtful and dishonest things being said. I’m not a child molester.”

Billings said his 29-year-old son committed suicide last Friday, after a past family dispute in which the son spoke out against Billings was cited by the Hawaii social media campaign against Acellus.

“Please, you’re going too far,” Billings said. “It’s time to stop with the dishonesty.”

Schools that are sticking with Acellus, such as Kealakehe Elementary, told its parents that claims against the company have been tied to a competitor and have not been substantiated, that its separate Academy product is accredited, and that Acellus has been accessed one way or another by Hawaii schools for about 10 years.

Always Investigating asked the DOE about how much spending is involved, as the DOE is paying for students’ licenses directly, in order to make the program free for public school families.

The DOE said it spent $226,000 on summer programs with Acellus for 9,040 licenses, at $25 per license,  but that they don’t have a tally for the 2020-21 school year because schools are buying it directly.

Earlier this summer the DOE anticipated at least 15 percent of Hawaii’s 180,000 students would be covered by digital-only with Acellus.

Acellus told KHON2 it had 190 Hawaii public schools and 80,000 participants — 44 percent of Hawaii’s students. Accelus said Aliamanu’s cost alone was about $22,000 for 624 students, with 200 regularly attending before the cutoff. Acellus is refunding Aliamanu’s fee, but the statewide fees could be worth nearly $3 million based on Acellus’ 80,000 student licenses statewide.

“If there’s something better that’s fine with me,” Billings said. “This is a not-for-profit organization. This is not about making money.”

Acellus is a program owned by the International Academy of Science, which holds the 501(c)(3) non-profit designation.

The DOE tells me they did not conduct a competitive procurement for online services — calling education materials exempt. The DOE says schools can also use Edgenuity and Edmentum for distance learning.

The state is also spending about $700,000 for online curriculum with Blackboard. DOE students get to use Google Classroom at no extra cost above its base G-Suite license. The DOE is still tallying what a program called Canvas might cost if they get a grant for it. Canvas is an Arizona State University digital curriculum.

“Programs used for distance learning continue to be managed and approved at the school level, not mandated across the state,” the DOE told Always Investigating.

As for Acellus, the DOE said: “The Department has been using Acellus for the last 10 years and did not receive any complaints until a recent social media campaign. Out of an abundance of caution, the Department has been working to identify any questionable content and will work directly with the vendor to address any content deemed inappropriate. As with any distance learning program, teachers at the school level are also reviewing content before they are assigned, similarly to how textbooks are used for instruction. Parents who come across any concerning content that was assigned by their school should report the specific location of such content immediately to their teacher or principal.”

DOE added: “Many schools have chosen to utilize Acellus for distance learning because of its ease of integration and because of the positive feedback received from other HIDOE schools and teachers with first-hand experience in using the program. As schools continue to plan while the pandemic situation continues to evolve, principals may adjust and modify distance learning plans based on the needs and feedback of their school community. These are unprecedented and challenging times and our teachers and staff have been working tirelessly to implement the best possible learning opportunities under the given conditions with the resources available.”

Later Monday, more schools notified parents they were leaving the Acellys platform, including Hickam Elementary School and Nimitz Elementary School.

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