The state Board of Education recently approved proposals to bolster its student misconduct and discipline code, which are now being vetted in public meetings statewide.

The draft rules, which will ultimately need sign-off from the state Attorney General’s office and the governor, hold promise for helping our kids learn in safe environments. The changes call for raising bullying and cyberbullying to a Class A offense in secondary schools, and raising student-on-student sexual harassment in grades 5 and higher to Class A.

That means bullying and harassment would be considered as serious a problem as physical violence, theft and bringing guns into Department of Education facilities. Students who are found to have committed such acts could be suspended or even kicked out of schools.

It’s about time. And yet, it doesn’t go far enough.

The Legislature needs to take another crack at passing bills addressing bullying, and this time the DOE should refrain from opposing them by claiming that lawmakers shouldn’t be meddling in school business.

Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto and right, Catherine Payne during Board of Education meeting.

Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto and Board of Education Chair Catherine Payne during a recent BOE meeting. In the past, education officials have consistently opposed legislative efforts to address bullying.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The DOE reported this week that fewer middle school students say they have been bullied from 2015 to 2017. Same goes for cyberbullying.

But the numbers of students bullied by others over a 12-month period are still alarming:

  • 40 percent of students in grades 6-8 say they have been bullied on school property
  • 18 percent of students grades 9-12 were bullied on school property
  • 22 percent of students grades 6-8 have been bullied electronically while 11 percent have electronically bullied someone else
  • 14 percent of students grades 9-12 were bullied electronically

The DOE says the results of the survey of 16,000 anonymous students are representative of students statewide — 28,900 in middle school and 42,700 in high school.

These are our children and grandchildren, and this is unacceptable.

As schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said in the DOE press release Nov. 1, “Bullying of any kind has no place in our schools and communities — it runs counter to everything we stand for as a public education system that’s grounded in respect, acceptance and aloha.”

What’s needed now is public input on Chapter 19, the Hawaii administrative rule covering student misconduct and discipline. Shockingly, it hasn’t been updated in 10 years, at a time when cyberbullying in particular has proliferated with the spread of social media platforms.

The DOE has been shamed into revising Chapter 19 after an extensive federal investigation into race-, gender- and sex-based bullying in Hawaii’s schools.

Among the alarming findings from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights was that nearly half of Hawaii public school students who said they’d been bullied or harassed did not report the incidents because they felt school officials wouldn’t do anything about it.

There is also a proposed class action case brought by parents alleging school officials didn’t take sufficient measures to respond to or protect their children even when alerted to alleged misbehavior from other kids “including racial slurs, sexual harassment and physical violence on the school bus.”

The DOE appears to have gotten the message. Its Chapter 19 proposals include combining the terms “bullying” and “harassment” to eliminate confusion for school administrators and deleting a phrase that defined bullying as only those acts which “limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from an educational program, activity or service.”

The DOE has also added “social media” to its definition of cyberbullying and updated definitions of “gender identity” and “gender expression” to align with the department’s own guidelines for transgender students.

The DOE’s public community “engagement” sessions started Thursday and run through December. The sessions are on all islands and are held in the late afternoon to early evening, a good time period for working parents.

The feedback from the sessions will inform new draft amendments. Once approved, it will then be up to the schools to enforce Chapter 19, and for the DOE and BOE to hold administrators and teachers accountable.

This is no small thing. School bullying can inflict mental scars that can last a lifetime.

“The saying ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me’ is false. Verbal abuse hurts and at times it can be fatal to the victim in the form of suicide, depression, and permanent mental harm,” state Rep. John Mizuno said Thursday when he announced two bills for the 2019 Hawaii Legislature intended to stop bullying.

Mizuno’s announcement came on the same day the DOE proposals were announced. One bill would require the DOE to set up a Bullying Prevention and Response Action Plan and requires the BOE or DOE to submit an annual report to the Legislature.

Similar to the manner in which the proposed Chapter 19 changes reflect today’s conditions, the legislation proposes adding new, detailed definitions to Hawaii Revised Statutes for what constitutes “bullying,” “harassment” and “electronically transmitted act or conduct” in schools.

The other bill would ask the State Auditor’s office to conduct a management and program audit of the DOE’s policies relating to bullying and cyberbullying “especially as they apply to students who are members of certain minority groups (LGBTQ, Disabled, Race, National Origin, etc.).”

Said Mizuno: “We can no longer stand on the sidelines and wait for this to work out.”

Up to now, Hawaii’s attempts to take on bullying in schools has been less than satisfying, both from the DOE and especially the Legislature, where previous legislation to improve school safety have either been rendered near useless during the legislative process or allowed to die.

Let’s hope our school leaders and policymakers really mean it this time when they say they care about the safety of our kids.

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