Editor’s Note: This is part of our occasional series on bullying in Hawaii schools. Read previous coverage here.

The federal government now has a much clearer understanding of how serious a problem bullying and suicide is for Hawaii kids, especially among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

Kiran Ahuja, executive director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, heard from a diverse group of nonprofits and health professionals during a roundtable talk Friday at the University of Hawaii.

“I’m really impressed with the work that’s been happening,” she said after a more than hour-long discussion that ranged from successful initiatives to serious challenges. “I didn’t know Hawaii was dealing with such a significant suicide rate. The president has made bullying a high priority and this is something the administration will continue to work on.”

School bully


Participants highlighted the Hawaii Department of Education’s ineffectiveness in addressing bullying in public schools despite decades of horror stories and surveys showing the state leads the nation in many categories, including kids who have made a suicide plan. They underscored the need for administrators in particular to deliver a clear and consistent message that this will no longer be tolerated.

Camaron Miyamoto, who works in LGBT Student Services at UH Manoa, said it’s outrageous that groups like the emerging Hawaii chapter of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network have had to pick up the slack for the DOE’s shortcomings over the past 10 years.

“I believe it’s the responsibility of the Department of Education to meet certain needs that they’re delinquent in meeting,” he said.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth in Hawaii are at particular risk of bullying. More than four out of five kids were verbally harassed in the past year because of their sexual orientation, according to GLSEN’s 2011 National School Climate Survey that came out last month.

Kaleo Ramos, who is working with Nick Aiello and others to cement the Hawaii GLSEN chapter, said the bullying isn’t just student to student. Some teachers and administrators bully LGBT kids by not letting them use certain restrooms, forbidding them from walking at graduation as their preferred gender and using incorrect pronouns.

The problem only gets compounded when multiplied by the ethnic variable, and there can be a sad irony to it.

In Pacific Island cultures, gays and lesbians traditionally are accepted, even as integral parts of society. But this has changed in places, such as Native Hawaiian communities on the leeward side of Kauai or the Pahala side of the Big Island.

Mono Ah Nee of the Life Foundation — a nonprofit that focuses on HIV/AIDS but has branched out into other areas — talked about being “mahu” yet bullied by family members. He attributed the cultural shift to the colonization of Hawaii, which pushed assimilation.

“But you realize that you’re Native Hawaiian, that you have a greater bone density, you’re darker skinned because your family works in the fields, you’re plantation workers,” he said. “Then you realize you’re not going to have 3.5 kids because you’re LGBT — you’re mahu — and so you get bullying from your parents, you get bullying from your cousins.

“So how do you address that? Where do you start to try to change the community who’s tried to erase who you are? But my culture says this. You know this mom, you know this grandma, auntie, uncle, brother, sister. You know that we have this in our tradition. You’re forcing me to be someone who I know I’m not as a person, spiritually, or as an individual.”

Ah Nee said on Oahu he can drive five minutes down the freeway and be who he is, but Neighbor Island residents may not have that opportunity.

Antonia Alvarez, Mental Health America-Hawaii‘s youth suicide and bullying prevention director, said this is a unique challenge the state faces.

“What is framed as protective factors in most states, like having a multi-generational household, having extended family around, here becomes a risk factor,” she said. “Many of our youth do not describe that as a protective factor and instead say they have no confidentiality, they have constant breaches of trust.”

There’s such a stigma attached to it, Alvarez said, that kids are scared to seek support. She added that this is worsened by how fast word spreads throughout island communities, so the church finds out and the paddling club knows.

With LGBT youth having three times the likelihood of being suicidal as other kids, the danger is clear and present.

“Hawaii doesn’t always feel like paradise” was one of the messages that came out of six recent focus group meetings, Alvarez said.

“Every kid isn’t out surfing all day and eating musubi thinking life is grand,” she said, adding that some parents in rural communities have even hospitalized their kids when they came out as lesbian or bisexual.

William Fernandez, who works with Life Foundation, explained how serious the problem can be for someone like himself, a self-described “perfect example of a plantation mix.”

The Portuguese-Filipino-Hawaiian-Japanese man said kids can be double-bullied. In the closet through high school on Maui, he said he was bullied by students who thought he was gay and by his gay friends for not coming out.

“Bullying was a big part of growing up,” Fernandez said.

Nancy Kern, the state Department of Health suicide prevention coordinator, said Neighbor Islanders are at much higher risk of suicide than Oahu, likely due to fewer services and the often conservative nature of rural areas.

“It’s part of the culture in Hawaii, especially on the Neighbor Islands,” said Andrew Robles, who coordinates Hawaii’s Gay-Straight Alliance. “It’s one thing for us to be reaching out all the time in the community, but if you’re not even comfortable with your identity, it’s hard. So I think this is how we’re all working together, validating our experiences.”

The talk also explored the complexities that the diverse culture here presents for Native Hawaiians who are transgender.

Maddie Sesepasara of Life Foundation, who transitioned from male to female, said she is lucky to have a family support structure that enables her to be who she is.

As Ah Nee highlighted, in Native Hawaiian and Polynesian culture it’s common to have mahu, lesbians or gays, she said. So when a family doesn’t offer this traditional support, bullying happens and kids turn to the streets or elsewhere.

“But when you have that support from the people that love you you’re able to stand in front of people without caring what anyone thinks,” Sesepasara said.

Bob Bidwell, a pediatrician who works in the juvenile detention center, said he worries about the kids who don’t have that support when they go home. He said he tries to put faith in the counseling and medical care he provides to carry them through.

Ahuja, the White House representative at the table, said the federal government can provide a megaphone to raise awareness of the concerns shared during the roundtable talk. She said she would let the anti-bullying folks at the federal level know about Hawaii’s efforts too, as well as help arrange conference calls to close the distance gap.

“We encourage you to think of how we could be helpful,” she said, acknowledging the pushback the feds experience working in Native Hawaiian communities. “We’re all moving toward the same goal. We want safe schools for our children. We want them to be successful.”

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