Editor’s Note: This is the first in an occasional series of stories examining school bullying in Hawaii, including the extent of the problem, what’s being done about it and solutions that other jurisdictions have found effective. Read about one Maui family’s experience here. If you have your own experience to share, email Suevon Lee at slee@civilbeat.org.

Before the Hawaii Legislature passed an anti-bullying statute in 2011, the state was one of only five in the country without such a law on the books.

It was an argument in favor of passage, largely to counteract the opposition that rose up from the state’s Department of Education, whose leadership at the time argued its bullying policies were sufficient.

The DOE needn’t have lost too much sleep: The Safe Schools Act, when it was signed by then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie in July 2011, was a fragment of its original version. It simply required the state Board of Education to monitor the DOE “for compliance” with the department’s own policies on bullying, cyberbullying and harassment.

But the DOE policies — despite recent momentum to beef them up following a federal review that found the agency wasn’t complying with civil rights protections — are still lackluster, some lawmakers say.

Chair Rep John Mizuno and Rep Scott Nishimoto during Death with Dignity measure voting.
Rep. John Mizuno, co-chair of the Keiki Caucus, said the DOE’s anti-bullying policies are insufficient. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“If the DOE policies were enough,” said Rep. John Mizuno, a co-chair of the Keiki Caucus, “we wouldn’t have all these lawsuits hanging over the DOE.”

Policymakers continue to call for anti-bullying legislation seven years after the Safe Schools Act was enacted. It speaks to the DOE’s lack of a comprehensive plan to address bullying or take a closer look at its root causes, according to advocates for reform.

The most wide-reaching lawsuit is a proposed class action case brought two months ago by several parents from various schools. They allege school officials didn’t take sufficient measures to respond to or protect their children when alerted to alleged misbehavior from other kids, including racial slurs, sexual harassment and physical violence on the school bus.

That lawsuit charges a “systemic failure” on the part of the DOE to properly address bullying or harassment in its schools, including incidents targeting kids based on their race, gender, national origin and sexual orientation.

Eric Seitz, the Honolulu attorney handling the case, said prior to filing suit in federal court he urged state education officials to examine the underlying reasons for the alleged behavior or create statewide anti-bullying procedures to avoid the need for legal action.

“We kept asking them, why don’t you look into the reasons for this? Is it acceptable at your schools to call people by these kinds of names?” he said. “They said, we’re not going to do anything, we’re just going to discipline the student.”

The lawsuit, he said, “was the only way to get their attention.”

Advocates Dissatisfied

The Safe Schools Act as initially drafted directed the DOE to, among other things, conduct annual training at schools on how to “promote peace and respect”; require complex areas to create a mechanism for reporting bullying and harassment and allow parents to file complaints against a complex area if it didn’t abide by that policy; make available to the public statewide statistics on bullying or cyberbullying; and designate one DOE official as a primary contact for anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies.

Those provisions never made it into the final version of the statute.

Some Board of Education members at the time opposed the law as originally written, arguing that educational policy should not be enforced through state statutes, that the bill was too “prescriptive” and that it opened up the department to liability, according to minutes from a March 3, 2011, meeting.

But the opponents were outnumbered, and the board voted to support the bill.

DOE Kathryn Matauyoshi testifies during a Hawaii State Ethics commission meeting. 27 may 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
A federal compliance review of bullying in Hawaii’s schools took place during the administration of former schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

DOE leadership was fixed in opposition. In legislative testimony, then-Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi said House Bill 688 was not necessary, pointing out the existence of administrative rules like Chapter 19, the student discipline code; “schoolwide positive behavioral interventions and supports”; and the Comprehensive Student Support System network guiding all schools.

“Forcing schools to do more monitoring and training would be counter to Matayoshi’s promise to principals — that she would ‘take things off their plate’, not add to it,” recalled Kim Coco Iwamoto, who sat on the school board at the time and supported the version of the Safe Schools Act as originally drafted.

When the stripped down bill eventually passed, “advocates were dissatisfied,” Iwamoto said.

“The legislators went through the motions, patted themselves on the back, but basically (the law) was very hollow.”

In the years since passage of the bill, other anti-bullying measures were introduced, but lacked “the zest” of earlier efforts, Mizuno said, adding “2019 must be the year that we pass something, because an administrative rule is not strong enough.”

Representative Ryan Yamane speaks at presser with left, Alexander Baldwin President CEO Chris Benjamin and Speaker Souki looking on at room 423, Capitol regarding Maui’s opening of water diversions being restored. 20 april 2016
Rep. Ryan Yamane introduced an anti-bullying bill in 2015 that would have established a process to empower families. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In 2015, after hearing from parents across the state that schools weren’t responsive to their concerns, Rep. Ryan Yamane introduced an anti-bullying bill that would have established a clear process for aggrieved parents to challenge a program’s proposed solution to a bullying incident if they felt the response wasn’t adequate.

“I wanted that specifically written in statute to protect victims and give the family and the victims a sense of control again,” Yamane said. “That’s what they lose when they’re bullied.”

But the bill was deferred after being heard in the House Education Committee. Another bill that same year — which got further, but died in conference — proposed creating a bullying prevention task force within the DOE. In her testimony, Matayoshi wrote she had “substantive concerns” with the proposal, as the DOE didn’t have the budget to implement the policies, procedures and training that would have been needed.

After the 2011 bill was watered down, the U.S Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights started focusing on bullying in Hawaii schools. It’s not clear whether the unspooling of the bill triggered the federal compliance review.

A Sept. 15, 2011, Office for Civil Rights letter addressed to Matayoshi obtained by Civil Beat through a Freedom of Information Act request noted that compliance reviews are “designed to address systemic issues and ensure that violations are readily identified and properly identified.”

Sites are selected “based on various sources of information, including statistical data and information from parents, advocacy groups, the media, and community organizations,” it said.

During the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years, the OCR surveyed students and staff in 29 schools and conducted 200 interviews with administrative staff, eventually concluding DOE was not in compliance with civil rights laws designed to protect students based on race, gender, national origin and sexual orientation.

DOE Superintendent Kishimoto Chair Catherine Payne during board meeting.
Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, left, and Board of Education Chairwoman Catherine Payne say they are committed to ensuring schools are safe for all students. But critics say the DOE’s anti-bullying policies are inadequate. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In a December 2017 resolution agreement with the federal government closing the review, the Hawaii DOE was required to hire “equity specialists” for its 15 complex areas, post anti-discrimination notices on school websites and revise Chapter 19, its student misconduct code. It recently recommended making bullying a more serious “Class A” offense.

But advocates say a more robust effort is needed at a district-wide level, including better training and more preventive measures, since student discipline doesn’t address the root cause of bullying. Hawaii is the only state that has a single school district, encompassing 256 public schools and 36 public charter schools that serve 179,000 students.

“For a comprehensive anti-bullying initiative to be truly effective, it takes a lot of resources,” said Judith Clark, executive director of Hawaii Youth Services Network, a coalition of organizations. “You cannot train school staff in how to intervene effectively by developing a PowerPoint and showing it at the school once a year.”

Bullying and harassment appear to be particularly stubborn problems for Hawaii schools: In 2017, the islands had more middle-schoolers who thought about suicide compared with the national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And a higher number of high-schoolers than the national average said they skipped classes because they felt unsafe at school, according to CDC.

In an op-ed that appeared in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser last month, schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, who assumed the position in August 2017, said that the DOE plans to “proactively educate” students and staff on “effective behavior interventions and peer-to-peer supports” to promote safe learning environments.

Kishimoto was not available for comment when asked for specifics on those plans.

Will New DOE Policies Go Far Enough?

One strategy the DOE will try out is an anti-bullying smartphone app that will enable confidential reporting of incidents, Kishimoto said recently. The program will be piloted at middle schools in January and high schools starting next fall, following staff training.

As outlined on its website, the DOE encourages schools to develop their own anti-bullying policies. But some advocates say that doesn’t hold all schools accountable.

“There’s this whole idea that every school should set their own curriculum and while I can see how that’s efficacious, it means schools that don’t want to address an issue, won’t,” said Dean Hamer, an independent filmmaker who’s pushed for more proactive anti-bullying action by the DOE.

Danny Afualo, parent of Kahuku High and Intermediate students, served as emcee for the school’s Unity Day event Wednesday evening, which was part of a national bullying prevention initiative. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat

Some schools, like Kahuku High and Intermediate, have taken the initiative to come up with their own student safety policies. The North Shore school uses a philosophy called “Power of Intention,” or “poi,” as a framework.

For instance, the school asks students to identify and designate an adult staffer who they feel comfortable confiding in if they feel threatened by another student, and also follows up with each student who has reported an incident until they graduate.

In honor of a nationwide bullying prevention initiative called “Unity Day,” the school Wednesday evening held an event for families to learn about what it’s doing to foster an anti-bullying culture and to also remind them of their role in promoting positive behaviors at home.

“This is a very prideful campus,” parent Danny Afualo said. “A lot of issues get settled behind closed doors. There’s a lot of deep-rooted families here.”

The event featured a rundown of popular social networking sites students use and encouraged parents to be aware of their kids’ presence on social media. If parents notice anything resembling cyberbullying, administrators encouraged them to come forward with that information.

“Self-reporting is the best form of self-defense,” Principal Donna Lindsey told the handful of families who attended. “If you let us know, it gives us the opportunity to keep kids safe.”

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