No state embraces private K-12 education more than Hawaii, often at great personal sacrifice for parents, children and the community. Intertwined in this pervasive private school narrative is the idea that some kids are more equal than others, generating both an elitist class on Oahu and a counterculture response.

While former President Barack Obama graduated from Punahou School, he also acknowledged a complicated relationship to the institution and its culture, including drug use and racist undertones. Hawaii’s private schools have their other media darlings, too, such as Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, now a recruiting tool for St. Louis School, and Kamehameha Schools student Auli‘i Cravalho, the voice behind Disney’s “Moana.”

But Cravalho’s “Moana” co-star, Dwayne Johnson, the world’s highest-paid actor, attended McKinley High School; Grammy Award-winner Bruno Mars is a Roosevelt High School graduate, and Grammy Award-winner and Oscar-nominated actress Bette Midler went to both Radford High School and the University of Hawaii. All of those are public institutions.

Private schools like Punahou offer opportunities that are rare in Hawaii’s public school system.

Speaking of UH, do you know where more Punahou School graduates go to college than anywhere else?

These particular tensions underlying the public-private school divide in Hawaii also spill over into its media stories, leading to subtexts that create secondary narratives for those attuned to them.

Under A Media Microscope

One of the most cryptic examples recently was Rob Perez’s Honolulu Star-Advertiser piece on Brittany Amano, a former Iolani School student with a questionable resume.

While this story was packaged as a general temperature-taking of tensions about college applications around this time of year, its initial premise obfuscated what seems to be its true intent, which was to question Amano’s highly publicized origin story.

As a teen at Iolani, Amano had become a community hero through her redemption tale. She claimed to have witnessed her grandmother being forced into a homeless shelter. She said her own personal reliance on a local food bank led her to form a nonprofit organization and gather edibles for others at a prodigious pace. Her story spread locally and nationally, including a People magazine profile in 2015.

In that profile, Amano claimed that during high school she only “went to class one or two times a month” because she was so focused on her nonprofit. The journalist failed to ask the obvious follow-up question: So how did you get accepted then to Duke University, one of the Top 25 most-selective colleges in the country?

The “private school” label can be wielded as a positive or a negative.

Perez’s story points out many other contradictions or holes in her account that deserve further consideration and investigation. (Amano did not respond to my attempt to reach her through her Twitter account.)

Some of those include the claims that by 16, she had raised more than $600,000, collected 98,000 pounds of food and recruited more than 400 youth volunteers in 26 states. When eventually questioned about those details by Iolani during her junior year, according to Perez’s report, Amano forfeited her $20,000 scholarship and dropped out of the private school and then bounced between two public schools, Kalani and Kaimuki, as a senior.

Perez could not reach Amano to ask her directly about discrepancies in her statements and also could not find documentation to back Amano’s philanthropic claims, such as the standard paperwork filed in the state when a person starts and maintains a nonprofit organization. At best, he found much smaller community impacts, such as $5,500 in cash contributed to the state’s food bank by Amano in 2014-2015 (but no additional donations of packaged food).

He also found that much of the material in Amano’s story wasn’t confirmed or questioned by the awarding organizations, and it simply didn’t add up. Just one example: She claimed in her Jefferson Awards Foundation bio that, starting at age 14, she worked multiple jobs for more than 50 hours a week.

As Perez noted, that would mean Amano worked illegally (because child labor laws don’t allow 14-year-olds to work), and she would have been working more than seven hours a day, seven days a week, in addition to attending school and running her nonprofit.

‘Punahou Privilege’

Amano isn’t the only local kid to pad a resume or fabricate/embellish a heart-wrenching tale about the troubles of youth. Remember Manti Teo’s “dead girlfriend” narrative? But when that kid associates with one of Hawaii’s costly private schools, such as Iolani, or Punahou (as Teo did), some in the community might feel a certain sting to institutional pride and/or a prejudice against the elitist support system that could have coddled and allowed such behaviors.

The “Punahou privilege” perception on Oahu also seems at the core of the outrage in the recent court case about an albatross slaughter on Kaena Point. The details of the case, chronicled by Civil Beat columnist Denby Fawcett, are vile enough on their own:

After learning of the place during a school field trip, Christian Gutierrez, Carter Mesker and Raymond Justice allegedly went to the North Shore bird sanctuary with a machete, baseball bat and air rifle to smash eggs, destroy nests and cut off the legs of the gentle and legally protected birds, so they could claim the identification tags of the animals as trophies.

If that isn’t sick enough, these young men apparently went to a party afterward and bragged about what they did, showing off the tags and social-media images. Some of their classmates turned them in. Yet this case has lingered in the court system (conspiracy theories abound) for more than a year, and the men at this point seem likely to have plea-bargained their ways out of jail time and marks on their permanent records.

Laysan Albatross flies near Kaena Point1. 7 feb 2017

The focus on Punahou students as suspects in the Kaena Point albatross killings overshadowed the fact that it was also Punahou kids who helped the investigation.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

How would this case have been handled, reader Dan Gardner wondered in a comment on one of Fawcett’s column, if the “perpetrators had attended Waianae or another public high school?”

A “concerned senior,” though, noted in another comment that “many associated with Punahou School are saddened and shamed” over the connection of this crime to the school. This reader argued that the “development of ethics and morals are primarily the (responsibility) and role of parents (and) families. We cannot blame a school for what these individuals did.”

In these ways, “private school” and “public school” labels in Hawaii fail us all of the time. Support systems vary widely, per person. Individuals make decisions, some good and some bad. People do things.

One can’t label the alleged criminals in this albatross slaughter case as “Punahou kids” without also crediting the other “Punahou kids” who turned them in to authorities. In such ways, the “private school” label can be wielded as a positive or a negative. Punahou is a school, but it also is a local status symbol, interpreted in different ways by different audiences. What you make of that symbol also is what you will make of the related story.

About the Author

  • Brett Oppegaard

    Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at brett.oppegaard@gmail.com.

    Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.