For dozens of summer school students at Likelike Elementary, it was a rare opportunity to meet well-known NFL athlete Marcus Mariota, the starting quarterback for the Tennessee Titans, a former Heisman Trophy winner and a native son of Honolulu.
The 23-year-old St. Louis School graduate, who made several public appearances in Hawaii last month, headed to Likelike on June 30 to hand out school supplies, take questions from K-5 summer school students and trade high-fives with them at an event organized by Island Insurance Foundation and Mariota’s own Motiv8 Foundation, which he established to benefit underprivileged youths.
But not all students got to attend.
At least one group of students was excluded by school officials, according to the parent of one of those children who spoke with Civil Beat.
“To me, this was a general assembly,” said Henry Lee, whose 6-year-old son, Kristian, is a special needs student who attends Royal Elementary but is participating in extended school year services at Likelike this summer because they’re not offered at his school. “My son and the rest of the ESY students were told to remain in their classroom with doors shut until Marcus Mariota left the campus.”
After Lee complained to the Department of Education, he received a letter from Likelike principal Kelly Bart, explaining that the assembly was designated specifically for Likelike summer school students who are also enrolled at the school for the 2017-18 school year.
“The donors requested the event be a closed session so the focus would be on the donated items to the Likelike summer school students,” Bart’s letter states. “Therefore, unfortunately, other students in other programs on the Likelike campus were not invited to participate.”
Kristian’s individualized education program, the document and management tool that lays out his special needs, goals and objectives within the public school system, states that he “will participate with his non-disabled peers in the general education setting with 1:1 support for music, art, assemblies, PE, lunch, recess, field trips, guidance (social skills).”
Lee said his anger over the exclusion of Kristian and some other students is not because his son did not receive a tote bag with new school supplies.
“It’s not about the bags,” Lee said. “The issue is that this was a one-time event, with an NFL star that will give inspiration to my son, that this is a renowned football player, that even though (Kristian) didn’t (recognize) it, just being around that and enjoying that and being around his peers.”
“You do for one, you do for all,” Lee said.
The June 30 event on the Likelike campus featured a school supplies drive organized through Island Insurance Foundation and Motiv8. The school, located in Kalihi-Palama and designated as a 21st Century Learning Center, was chosen as a site because many students are near or close to poverty level, according to Bart’s letter.
A spokeswoman for Island Insurance, Sandy Siu, told Civil Beat the foundation was not aware ahead of time that some students on campus were excluded from the assembly. She said Island had “left it up to the school itself” to determine which children would be allowed to participate.
“With a significant percentage of Likelike Elementary School students coming from challenging economic situations, it was our goal to minimize their school supply expenses for the upcoming year,” she wrote in an email.
Civil Beat also reached out to Mariota’s Motiv8 Foundation, but did not receive a reply Monday.
Kristian Lee, who just completed kindergarten last school year, is physically and developmentally disabled, according to his father. He has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair.
Kristian is an incoming first-grader at Royal Elementary. The purpose of an “extended school year” for special needs students is to preserve the progress they made in the school year and not lose that momentum in the gap between school years.
Henry Lee was not on campus June 30, but he said a teacher told him that “she was told to close the doors like it was a lockdown.”
Bart, the school principal, denied in his July 11 letter to Lee that any door was ordered shut while the Mariota event took place. Bart did not respond to an email and phone call from Civil Beat.
The Mariota appearance generated excitement within the school community and among parents and students ahead of time, Lee said.
While his own son wouldn’t be aware of the implications of such an occasion, “he would have definitely enjoyed watching people and his peers,” Lee said.
He and his wife dressed Kristian that morning in the colors of the Titans, Mariota’s NFL team.
“We told Kristian that he was lucky that he was going to see Marcus Mariota on that day and his sister was jealous,” Lee said. “But due to his developmental delays he would not be aware like me and you.”
It is unclear how many ESY students were excluded from the assembly. In total, there are 38 extended school year special ed students at Likelike this summer, according to DOE spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz.
Statewide, there are 2,600 special education students enrolled in ESY, with 553 of those students in Honolulu alone, according to Dela Cruz.
‘A Pretty Lousy Thing To Do’
Lee said he was unaware of any other parents protesting the exclusion of their children from the event.
In addition to the DOE, Lee also reached out to Island Insurance. Siu, the company’s spokeswoman, wrote to him in a July 7 email, that, “Funding was provided by Island Insurance and the Motiv8 Foundation with the purchase of the items and selection of the students to be handled by the school.”
Lee also escalated his efforts by writing directly to Department of Education interim superintendent Keith Hayashi and interim deputy superintendent Amy Kunz, who also serves as the chief financial officer of Hawaii’s public schools.
“Experience has taught me that quite too often top administrators like both of you are not made aware of such a horrible and awful situation,” Lee’s email states. “It is my strong feeling that no one should have been left out of the general assembly and that there were ample seating to accommodate all summer school students including ESY students.”
Informed about the exclusion of Kristian and some other students from the event, Louis Erteschik, executive director of the Hawaii Disability Rights Center, was critical of how the DOE handled the situation.
“Overall, it may not necessarily be illegal but it was a pretty lousy thing to do,” Erteschik said. “It was sort of insensitive, I think, and the hope would be that the DOE comes out of this and uses it as an opportunity to maybe try and understand and be more inclusive in the way they treat kids with disabilities, especially those in special education.”
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