The Hawaii Department of Education has agreed to pay $10,000 to settle a two-year-old lawsuit alleging school officials did nothing to address recurring sex-based harassment against two students on the Big Island.
The lawsuit, brought by former Hilo resident Joshua Franklin on behalf of his two minor sons, claimed the boys were taunted by other students and called homophobic names like “faggot” and “queer” as school administrators stood by and didn’t stop the harassment or properly investigate the complaints. It also alleged school officials didn’t receive proper training on LGBTQ issues.
The harassment starting when they were 6 and 7 resulted in Alea Stevens-Alameda and Poha Stevens-Alameda — now 12 and 13 — attending five different elementary schools in Hawaii County within a four-year time span, according to the suit, which alleged a violation of Title IX, the federal law which prohibits sex-based discrimination or harassment in an educational setting.
The complaint also alleged the boys were shoved and pushed by other students in addition to the name-calling and were told by a teacher, “Maybe these things wouldn’t happen if you believed in God.”
The DOE denied many of the allegations in the Franklin case.
Joshua Franklin and his sons seen in 2015.
Courtesy of Joshua Franklin
In addition to the monetary payment, the July 27-dated settlement requires the DOE to complete and implement policy changes — the same changes that are in motion under an agreement reached with the federal government in late 2017 following a years-long U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights investigation into bullying in Hawaii schools that began in 2011.
The settlement requires the DOE to update Chapter 19, its student misconduct code, to cover bullying against protected classes; come up with an actual complaints and investigation process; hire equity specialists for each complex area; and develop a web-based “standardized training program” on DOE procedures.
Such training, according to the settlement, would not necessarily be mandatory for all employees. “DOE will aspire to make this training mandatory, subject to applicable labor-management consultations, negotiations and/or other applicable conditions,” it states.
The DOE recently presented proposed revisions to Chapter 19 to the Hawaii Board of Education, which must sign off on the changes. The board postponed a vote, saying it wants to see some clarifications and specifics added to the code.
Franklin, who this summer moved with his two sons to California, said he was pleased with the settlement, particularly because going to trial would have been too costly. The Native Hawaiian man is openly gay and told Civil Beat earlier this year the school-based harassment likely originated from the small, tight-knit community where he and his sons used to live.
“I assume that their parents were talking about my sexual orientation around their children and their children absorbed this information and went to school and started harassing my kids,” he said.
A federal judge in May denied the plaintiffs summary judgment on their Title IX claim, ruling there needed to be an inquiry as to whether the name-calling and insults against Franklin’s sons were harmless or rose to the level of “targeting on the basis of gender.”
Franklin said the settlement’s monetary payment — ordered by the court to be divided into separate investment accounts for each child and not distributed until they reach age 18 — “was an apology because it was some form of accountability.”
The ex-Hilo resident also said the proposed policy changes made him feel more “secure in regard to (the DOE) making proper changes.”
“Moving forward, do I think they’re going to follow these policies? I hope that they will,” he said.
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Civil Beat is seeking accounts of school-based bullying in which school officials did not adequately respond. Contact reporter Suevon Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are willing to share your story.
The DOE referred a request for comment on the settlement to the Hawaii Attorney General’s office.
Though it has settled this case, legal woes for the DOE involving school bullying are far from over.
A proposed class action lawsuit was recently filed by three families who claim their children were bullied or harassed in DOE schools, in some cases on the basis of race, without proper redress by school administrators. At least one of the students has since transferred to a private school. The suit was amended on Thursday to add a fourth plaintiff.
The lawsuit, filed by attorney Eric Seitz, alleges a “deliberate and ongoing failure” by the DOE to ensure student safety in the schools. The complaint says little has changed at the DOE to properly address student-on-student complaints of bullying and harassment, even in the wake of last year’s federal resolution agreement. The federal compliance review indicated at least 20,000 DOE students had been bullied or harassed in the 2014-15 school year.
The DOE declined to comment last month about the most recent lawsuit due to it being pending litigation.
Read the settlement here:
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