Nearly half of the Hawaii public school students who said they’d been bullied or harassed at school in recent years did not report the incidents, often because they felt school officials wouldn’t do anything about it, according to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.

22-page compliance review, delivered by federal officials to the Hawaii Department of Education in late January, assessed the statewide school district’s handling of student-on-student bullying.

It offers a vivid snapshot of the extent bullying reaches into the islands’ public schools. Of the 69,905 students surveyed in late 2014 (fifth-graders and up), nearly one-third reported having been personally bullied or harassed at school; nearly two-thirds said it was due to their race, sex or disability; and of those who reported incidents to school officials, more than half said they were victimized again.

Hawaii Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto spoke with Assistant Chief John McCarthy about recent student threats in schools.
Hawaii Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said Monday that island schools have already made progress on the concerns contained in a federal review. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In addition, of the survey respondents who said they had been bullied but had not reported it to school personnel, nearly half said they did not do so since they felt it would lead to no action, with a smaller percentage saying they didn’t speak up at school since “they did not know to whom to report the harassment,” according to the review.

The Office for Civil Rights — based on an investigation conducted over the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years — concluded that when it came to student bullying and harassment, the Hawaii DOE failed to comply with federal anti-discrimination laws, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

As a recipient of federal funding, the DOE is legally required to comply with the laws, the review noted.

The federal investigation is now closed based on a resolution agreement between the Office for Civil Rights and the state DOE that was finalized late December. The agreement capped a years-long process that originated in September 2011, when the OCR first notified Hawaii education officials the school district was being selected for a compliance review.

‘Substantial Amount Of Progress’

In a statement Monday, Hawaii Superintendent Christina Kishimoto — who stepped into her role last August — said the DOE has made “a substantial amount of progress” since that 2011 initial notification.

“During this time, the department has taken action to address areas of concern including revising Board of Education policies, requesting and hiring additional Title IX positions with legislative support, and implementing new training programs,” she said.

“Due to the gap of time between the start of the review and the issuance of findings seven years later, the progress of the department is not captured in the findings. Future monitoring letters will more accurately reflect where we are today,” Kishimoto added.

A poster inside an elementary school. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The findings in the federal review underscore the challenges of dealing with bullying on an incremental school-by-school level, according to Pedro Haro, deputy director of the nonprofit Mental Health America of Hawaii.

The report noted that the investigation of harassment claims had been left up to each school principal rather than by the DOE’s own Civil Rights Compliance Office.

“We definitely support having a systemwide (anti-bullying) policy, and that’s where the DOE is headed,” Haro said. “The ball is in the DOE’s court of coming up with a plan … While we want the DOE to definitely address all the deficiencies, we’re glad the gaps are at least being identified.”

Three areas where the DOE fell short of compliance included: designating a specific coordinator to address complaints of harassment; adequately disseminating a notice of nondiscrimination; and developing proper grievance procedures to address incidents of harassment.

Disparate Numbers On Bullying

The compliance findings, first reported by Hawaii News Now on Monday, also cited a big gap in what Hawaii schools reported as bullying incidents in 2014-15 and 2015-16 and what students personally disclosed in a survey conducted by the feds for that period.

The DOE recorded 197 instances of harassment for those years, while the survey data recorded 1,284 incidents in 2014-15 alone.

School officials often failed to properly address the bullying they were aware of, the feds concluded.

“In approximately 82 percent of all discipline records OCR reviewed, there was no indication of whether school officials took steps to protect individuals involved in a harassment incident from retaliation,” the review states. “In approximately 76 percent of the records, there was no indication of whether school officials took or considered taking interim measures, pending the outcome of their investigation, to protect students.”

“We definitely support having a systemwide (anti-bullying) policy, and that’s where the DOE is headed.” — Pedro Haro, Mental Health America of Hawaii

Additionally, in 83 percent of cases, school officials didn’t take “affirmative efforts to follow up with student victims or their families as part of or in the aftermath of addressing the offending student’s behavior,” the review said.

The OCR’s report was released close to a separate federal review finding that the University of Hawaii Manoa mishandled sexual harassment complaints from 2010 to 2016 and fell short of complying with Title IX.

For the Department of Education review, federal officials selected 29 schools — out of a total at the time of 255 non-charter public schools — conducting more than 200 interviews with administrators, teachers and staff, and meeting with groups of students who represented “numerous community groups” plus “informal groups of Micronesian and Chuuk communities, and gay, lesbian, and transgender students,” according to the review.

In the resolution agreement, the DOE agreed to designate compliance coordinators to oversee Title IX and Title II complaints; publish a nondiscrimination notice in print materials as well as school websites; create and distribute grievance procedures; provide training to employees; and develop a plan for future compliance monitoring.

The DOE has to meet several time benchmarks to ensure it’s working toward compliance. It has until April 1 to identify the individuals hired as Title IX compliance coordinators, until July 1 to distribute the nondiscrimination notice in all pertinent documents; and until September 1 to develop and send to the feds a new grievance procedure, according to a letter Kishimoto sent last week to the Hawaii Board of Education, which shapes policy for the statewide school system.

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Read the compliance review and the resolution agreement:

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