KEA‘AU, Hawaii Island — When in-person classes fully resumed last fall at Kea‘au High on the rural east side of Hawaii island, the school was in crisis.

Fights between students occurred regularly. A school security guard was injured when he tried to break up a brawl and is still out on medical leave. Students filmed fights on their cell phones and posted them to social media.

“It was chaotic,” said Kea‘au High science teacher Charlotte Godfrey-Romo. “It became a competition … to see who could get the most fights.”

While the situation at Kea‘au High has improved significantly since winter break — fights are now rare at the campus, according to staff — the surge in violent behavior last fall exposed how Hawaii schools struggle to provide mental health and trauma counseling for students following the pandemic wave.

Students walk with a teacher while on the Kea'au High School campus located on Hawaii island.
Kea‘au High, which enrolls 1,100 students, saw a sharp uptick in student fights last fall as students returned to campus for in-person learning after a year-and-a-half of mostly virtual classes. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

For kids living in this rural Kau-Keaau-Pahoa district, one of the poorest areas of the state, the need for counseling is compounded by issues such as food insecurity, housing instability and inadequate infrastructure, including unreliable transportation and internet access that serve as barriers to learning.

These problems are reflected in one of the worst absenteeism rates in the state: 46% of students in the district missed 15 or more days of classes last year compared with 22% of all Hawaii students.

The region has also been hard hit by natural disasters, including the 2018 Kilauea volcanic eruption that forced the evacuation of hundreds of families from their homes in the lower Puna district.

The problems facing Kea‘au High are not new. The school had a rough reputation more than a decade ago but took steps to create a more inclusive environment that helped curb disruptive behavior.

The pandemic interrupted that progress.

Teachers and school administrators say the uptick in fights last fall was part of a broader trend fueled by the loss of in-person interactions and a lack of help with conflict resolution during the year-and-a-half of mostly virtual learning.

Kea'au High School students walk across campus.
Kea‘au students have lived through a series of environmental disruptions in recent years, including the 2018 volcanic lava flow. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“If there were home situations that were stressful or traumatic, rather than being at school and getting support in a school environment, kids were stuck at home in those environments,” said Alec Marentic, a state Department of Education psychologist based in Kau-Keaau-Pahoa. “There has been a general increase in mental health challenges expressed in acting-out behaviors.”

The school also often serves as a refuge for students, providing free meals and the support of trusting adults. More than 80% of the kids at Kea’au qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch.

“This is the safe haven,” said the school’s principal, Dean Cevallos.

That sanctuary was lost for students during the pandemic. When they returned to in-person classes last fall, pent-up issues spilled into the open.

During the 2021-22 school year there have already been 101 incidents at the school that the Hawaii Department of Education classifies as Class A, or most serious. That includes 53 fights, 13 assaults and 12 cases involving drugs.

Kea'au High School principal Dean Cevallos.
Dean Cevallos, Kea‘au High’s principal of 11 years, said it took some time for students to “get back in the groove” of a structured school environment. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

That count, halfway through the school year, surpasses the 85 Class A offenses recorded in 2018-19, the last full school year before the pandemic hit.

While there is no statewide data on the number of such incidents this year, there was a sharp rise in disruptive behavior at schools across the U.S. this year as they reopened for in-person learning.

Teacher Concerns

At the height of the tensions last fall, Kea‘au High teachers felt that administrators were not taking their concerns about school safety seriously. They asked representatives from the state teacher’s union to come to the school to discuss the problems.

In December, officials from the Hawaii State Teachers Association visited the campus.

“It was more a listening tour to hear the concerns,” said HSTA President Osa Tui Jr.

Tui said teachers reported feeling unsafe and felt administrators weren’t hiring enough security guards.

While Tui said the union agrees there’s a need for improved security, it also advocates for preventive measures such as increasing the number of counselors available to students.

Cevallos said the school has taken steps to address the violence.

Kea'au High School students head to their classes.
Representatives from the Hawaii State Teachers Association paid a visit to Kea‘au High in December to hear teachers’ concerns with school safety and security. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Students caught fighting are suspended for five days. When they return, they are kept out of the regular student population and provided mediation counseling.

Students involved in more than one fight are banished from the school and required to take classes exclusively online, Cevallos said.

Yet problems persist and resources are scarce.

Kea‘au has a guidance counselor assigned to each grade level, roughly one per 275 students. The counselors provide routine support for academic or emotional needs.

But counselors across the state have faced an increased burden since the pandemic began.

“We are more emergency firefighter status,” said Chelsea Muroda, a school counselor at Farrington High in the Kalihi district on Oahu.

She said she has noticed more anxiety and depression among kids this year and many have come to her expressing urges to fight.

“They weren’t used to seeing each other’s faces,” she said. “They don’t remember what it was like to look at each other and they perceive direct eye contact as a threat in some way. There was a lot of misunderstanding and they don’t know how to cope with it.”

There are also therapists and behavioral health specialists available to students at Kea‘au High and other schools. They provide more targeted interventions for serious behavioral issues.

Puna Peace Mural by Ken Charon located in the halls of Kea'au High School.
“Puna Peace Mural” by artist Ken Charon at Kea’au High depicts the period in 2014-15 when the school welcomed 200 Pahoa High students due to lava flow disruptions in Lower Puna. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Teachers and counselors can refer students for these services. At Kea’au High, there are four behavioral health specialists but students must receive parental permission to access services.

The DOE has psychologists on staff who provide higher level support to schools. But they are in short supply.

Only about two-thirds of the 92 psychologist positions are filled, meaning there are just 62 psychologists for a school system that enrolls nearly 160,000 students.

In the Kau-Keaau-Pahoa district there are only four psychologists available, a ratio of about one for every 1,400 students, far below the ratio recommended by the National Association of School Psychologists of one per 500 students.

Even before the pandemic, the need for mental health services for students was acute.

According to a 2019 Hawaii Youth Risk Behavior Survey, nearly 16% of students on Hawaii island said they were bullied online compared with 13% of kids in the state overall.

That same year, 20% of students said they were bullied on school property compared with 17% of kids statewide.

Kea'au High School sign 'United to end Bullying' located in the school administration office.
Students on Hawaii island reported more incidents of cyber- and in-person bullying than their peers statewide, according to a 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The implications of the shortage of mental health services came into full view when students returned to in-person classes full time last fall.

Teachers say most fights spilled over from online squabbles on social media that began during the period of remote learning with insults about one’s friends, family or significant others.

Kea‘au High ninth grade teacher Brianna Sanchez said she saw kids record fights on their phones and post them to Instagram “for clout,” to garner more likes.

The school addressed the problem by suspending the most disruptive students.

Cevallos said a group of about 20 students caused most of the disturbances. The majority had no prior history of behavioral problems, he said.

In addition to removing the most troublesome students, Cevallos said the school also tried to help repair student relationships.

A flyer in the school hallway urges students to “Be kind,” “Be patient,” “Apologize,” “Forgive” and “Thank People.”

Since students returned from winter break last month, disruptions have been rare.

During a recent school visit, Cevallos roamed the halls, gently chiding students who were late to class after lunch.

Teachers stood outside their classrooms greeting students as they walked in. Kids walked in pairs and groups, laughing and talking as they moved between classrooms.

Kea‘au High math teacher Abel Alvarez teaches a lesson on variables during a mathematics course called “Modeling Our World.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“It took us a while to get back in the groove,” Cevallos said.

But Sanchez worries that if schools don’t emphasize internet civility and etiquette, fighting could pick up again.

“This is a school with awesome teachers and young people with amazing potential and I never felt afraid before,” she said. “I think we need to make school a place where kids want to be — that does not include an unrelenting focus on test scores.”

Widespread Problems

Other schools in the Kau-Keaau-Pahoa region also faced substantial problems following the return to in-person learning last fall.

Pahoa High and Intermediate, a school with grades 7 to 12 located 11 miles south of Kea’au, also saw a sharp rise in fights among students last fall.

Like Kea’au, many students at Pahoa come from struggling families. And infrastructure in the area is poor. In addition, racial tensions have long permeated the campus. The school is 44% Native Hawaiian, 15% Filipino and 7% Micronesian.

Students and their families also live with a shared fear of upheaval due to natural disasters. The 2014 lava flow that threatened to engulf the town of Pahoa resulted in a temporary relocation of 200 Pahoa High students to Kea‘au High for much of the 2014-15 school year. A mural dedicated to that time hangs in a hallway at Kea‘au High.

Final bell just rang and Pahoa High and Intermediate School students head home for the day.
Pahoa High & Intermediate, established in 1913, enrolls 730 kids in grades 7 to 12. Students share an open air campus whose facade is painted in cheerful yellow. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

As at Kea‘au, many of the disputes at Pahoa started on social media during remote learning.

Most began as small taunts against friends or family members that would erupt in person, said vice principal Brandon Gallagher.

“They really were coming out of an (online) environment where the one solution was to go to fists,” he said.

These small problems, he said, became magnified by “not having access to counseling, adults to work them through (disputes).”

In response to the disruptions, the school doubled down on measures it had put in place pre-pandemic, during the 2014-15 school year.

Instead of sending students to detention and calling a parent if a kid is involved in a fight, the school engages the student directly.

Principal Kim Williamson said students often complained that they weren’t being listened to as a reason for acting out.

“They behave in a way that gets them what they need,” he said. “We sat them down and had conversations.”

Pahoa High and Intermediate School students walk to class while on a tour of the campus.
The Pahoa school established a combined social and academic learning program for students who are several grade levels behind so they can acclimate to a small setting before turning to academic deficits. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The school also introduced specialized learning programs for students who were four to five grade levels behind. This involves placing them in smaller groups and building in extra time for relationship building, beyond what is happening in a regular classroom, so kids are comfortable with one another before they work on academic skills.

“The teachers and adults who work in these programs are excellent teachers, but also fulfill a role as mentor and counselor as well,” he said.

These strategies became key tools for dealing with problems that emerged when students returned to campus last fall.

But even with these programs in place, racial tensions boiled over on the campus last month. A major fight broke out between ethnic groups, sparked by online taunts. Seven students were arrested. An 18-year-old male was charged with second-degree assault and 20 students were suspended. A school security guard was injured in the melee.

Pahoa High and Intermediate School principal Kim Williamson.
Pahoa High & Intermediate Principal Kim Williamson came to the school seven years ago and has emphasized trauma-informed counseling as part of his leadership strategy. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“This unfortunate fight was symptomatic of larger issues (of) Micronesian students not feeling heard or seen,” said Williamson.

The fight sparked dialogue between teachers, administrators and students and prompted the school to build in lessons about tolerance and respect, Williamson said.

Members of the student government association sought to convey a healing message to the campus community. They settled on a Maya Angelou quote, posted on the large sign at the school entrance: “We are more alike than we are different.”

Williamson said that since kids returned last fall he’s made a point of freeing up time during recess to walk around campus so kids can see him and talk to him if they want.

His goal, he said, is not breaking up fights, but “cultivating relationships ahead of time” to prevent fights.

Still, since that Jan. 26 brawl, there have been several more clashes and incidents of disorderly conduct, but they were handled quickly by staff and things have otherwise been calm, Williamson said.

Given the longstanding underlying issues, Williamson said more sustained funding for behavioral support staff is essential.

“What usually happens is there is seed money to start, then the schools have to budget … for those positions,” he said. “When times are lean and we are trying to maximize classroom supports in core classrooms, often these smaller programs are where cuts happen.”

Pahoa High and Intermediate School front entrance sign a quote from Maya Angelou, "We are more alike than we are different".
Following the Jan. 26 fight spurred by racial tensions, the school posted a healing message on a sign by its front entrance. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Thinking Differently

Mental health professionals have long urged teachers to consider new strategies to account for the losses kids experienced during the pandemic, instead of jumping right back into regular classroom routines and expecting kids to fall right back in line.

“How do we integrate kids back into the academic environment incrementally so we’re addressing anxieties?” asked Marentic, the DOE psychologist based in Kau-Keaau-Pahoa.

One Hawaii school, Waimea Middle on the north end of the island, has already adopted such practices.

The 208-student charter school saw a substantial increase in fights at the beginning of the academic year. Many disputes revolved around students readjusting to a structured environment, said sixth grade teacher Tina Yohon.

“There were a lot of … physical conflicts,” she said.

Waimea Middle School students enjoy recess after finishing lunch.
Waimea Middle on north Big island saw an escalation of fights this past fall as well, as students adjusted back to an in-person school environment. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Principal Janice English said she understood last April that her school would need to take steps to address the needs of students, many of whom come from impoverished, single-parent households, in order to avoid problems in the coming school year.

“I just got a sense that they needed more help than we could provide,” she said.

English and her team wrote a proposal for a grant from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to fund a new art therapy position. The grant was approved but the funding did not come through until January, after disturbances had already erupted at the school.

Waimea Middle School art teacher Mr Pat Ayat gives a lecture before his students start working on their water color paintings of Kalo.
The school hired an art therapy teacher and counselor, Pat Ayat, this year, in order to incorporate more art into classes and allow students to express themselves. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

With the $60,000 in grant funds, English hired a Native Hawaiian educator, Pat Ayat, as an art therapy teacher and counselor to help address student trauma.

On a recent school day, Ayat led a group of 12 students in a lesson about the taro plant and its significance to Hawaiian culture. The students also sketched pictures of a kalo leaf.

English said teachers and students had asked for more art to be integrated into coursework, and the class fills a social and emotional need. She said it is beneficial for kids to express themselves through art, using a Native Hawaiian term to refer to the process: “na‘au.”

Fights have decreased on campus since Ayat joined the staff, English said, explaining that adding the art classes offers a “layering of supports.”

Students start their water color paintings in Waimea Middle School art class taught by Mr Pat Ayat..
A student uses water colors to fill in a drawing of kalo after a brief history lesson in art therapy class. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

To further address student needs, the school of grades 6 to 8 has also resumed a community volunteer program that first launched in 2013 in which mentors visit with students on campus before or after school. They help them with homework or just talk to them about things going on in their lives.

“If the kids can get help from classroom mentors, that’s less discipline for me,” English said.

Teachers have also adopted their own strategies. Yohon said she has had to recalibrate her teaching style as if she were teaching fourth and fifth graders.

She actively organizes field trips so her kids can go out into the community and release their energy.

Even with these new techniques in place, school administrators say improvements will not occur overnight.

“It’s going to take us until the end of the year to establish the rituals,” said English.

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