School administrators at Hilo High neglected to take necessary action against students who repeatedly taunted and bullied a fellow student for almost an entire year, a new lawsuit filed in Hawaii district court alleges.

The 18-page complaint, which names as defendants the Hawaii Department of Education and Board of Education, lays forth a timeline of events beginning in January 2019 in which an unnamed minor was “regularly and frequently harassed by various female students of (Hilo High School) and Waiakea High School” during and after school and also on social media.

The bullying escalated to such a degree that the minor’s mother, identified as Jonelle Fukushima in the complaint, pressed charges against the students after one incident and filed a temporary restraining order against the kids, which a judge granted later that year.

Hilo High School sign fronting the school on the island of Hawaii reminds students to Wear A Mask, Wash your Hands and Social Distance during a surge in COVID-19 cases. September 24, 2020
A new lawsuit centers on bullying at Hilo High and Waiakea High in 2019. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The lawsuit, filed by attorneys Michael Green and Peter Hsieh, contends that school officials, despite knowing about the ongoing bullying, took no reasonable steps to try and stop it, such as suspending the students or reporting their actions to law enforcement.

“This girl was in band, in athletics — she had to quit all that,” Green said on Thursday, adding the teen entered therapy to cope with the bullying, suffered failing grades and transferred to a new school.

“Children spend more time at school with supervisors and counselors than they do at home,” Green said. “When (officials) are too busy and ignore the fact the kid is in danger, and the kid has to move to a different school … you never forget that.”

DOE spokesman Derek Inoshita said the department could not comment on pending litigation. The complex area superintendent of the Hilo-Waiakea district, Esther Kanehailua, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

The lawsuit alleges a violation of Title IX, the federal civil rights law, as well as negligence, negligent training and intentional infliction of emotional distress and seeks damages and a jury trial.

According to the complaint, the harassed student was subject to such threats as “We will kill you!” and “We will get you!” by the perpetrators; punched on more than one occasion on school grounds; and also subject to filming on another student’s camera phone during a fight that was disseminated across social media.

The suit also describes actions taken by two vice principals at Hilo High. One of those administrators, Jason Trimble, had the students and victim enter mediation but did not impose disciplinary action, according to the complaint. In another instance, vice principal Heidi Pana advised the alleged victim and her friend to “stay near her until their rides came” after an athletic event but did not directly speak to the perpetrators.

At one point, Fukushima reached out to the complex area superintendent via phone and email, “but did not receive any help,” the complaint states, adding the mother had contacted school officials by fall 2019 to ask them to supervise and stop the bullying, to no avail.

The scourge of student-on-student bullying in public schools has been a key issue for the Hawaii DOE since it was notified in 2011 of a federal compliance review regarding student bullying and harassment.

Under a 2017 resolution agreement with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, the DOE agreed to revamp its student misconduct code, hire new equity specialists and set up mandatory training for school employees.

The DOE proposed elevating student bullying and harassment in grades 7 to 12 as a “Class A” offense, giving school leaders more leeway to impose harsher punishment like suspension or expulsion.

The Hawaii Board of Education voted to approve the proposal for public comment. After a number of community engagement sessions were held across the state in late 2018, the proposed revisions to Chapter 19 were adopted, effective November 2019.

The DOE’s Chapter 19 student misconduct code now lists student bullying as a “Class A” offense.

Green, the attorney in this case, said while he recognizes that the DOE employs many effective teachers and staff, it’s a distinct danger when even one student is subject to persistent bullying with no adult interference and support — that can often lead to grave consequences.

“Parents really have to be aware of this, schools have to be aware of this stuff,” he said.

Read the complaint here:

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