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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 18, 2004

Few gays report harassment at school

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Education Writer

A state Board of Education member whose family has fought against gay rights said that only a small number of student harassment complaints in Hawai'i public schools involve sexual orientation.

So far this school year, 16, or 1.1 percent, of the 1,435 harassment incidents related to sexual orientation.

"These figures clearly refute the assertion that students perceived as homosexual are the primary targets of harassment in our schools," Carol Gabbard, a school board member, wrote in a letter to news organizations.

The most prevalent form of student harassment this school year has been verbal, with 660 incidents, according to the DOE. A total of 563 incidents involved physical attributes, 171 were sexual, and 25 were racial.

In 2000, after bitter public debate and protests, the school board approved an anti-harassment rule that gave new protection to gay students, and it became state policy in early 2001. The state Department of Education later required anti-harassment training for all students and educators.

On Friday, the state House and Senate passed resolutions requiring the department to study the demographics and needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students, as well as how it is implementing the anti-harassment rule, and report back to the Legislature before next session. The resolutions now await final approval.

State Rep. Tulsi Gabbard Tamayo, D-42nd (Waipahu, Honouliuli, 'Ewa), Gabbard's daughter, said the figures released by her mother contradict a claim in the House resolution that gay and lesbian students are three times as likely as other students to face harassment.

Tamayo said a study that asks students questions about their sexuality would be a violation of student privacy. She also said many parents would see the study as an indirect attempt by government to encourage young people to question their sexual orientation.

Gabbard Tamayo said the harassment figures "show that our schools are not rampant with anti-gay harassment."

But Lois K. Perrin, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawai'i, said school-aged children who are harassed because of such a sensitive issue as sexual orientation may be reluctant to make formal complaints. "I would not be surprised if the numbers are higher," she said.

Gabbard was running for the school board at the time of the debate in 2000, and her questions about whether the anti-harassment rule would promote the homosexual lifestyle at schools outraged many in the gay community. In the months after Gabbard was elected, gay rights activists continued to criticize her, but the controversy has since faded, and Gabbard is now chair of the board's committee on public libraries and charter schools.

Her husband, Mike Gabbard, a Honolulu City Councilman running for Congress in the district held by U.S. Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawai'i, has led the campaign against same-sex marriage in Hawai'i.

Carolyn Martinez Golojuch, the president of PFLAG-O`ahu, a gay and lesbian support group, ran unsuccessfully for the school board at the same time as Gabbard. "This really goes to show that she has one agenda only," she said of Gabbard's decision to call attention to the harassment figures. "That's the only reason she even went on the board."

Golojuch said many students are afraid to speak out about their treatment. "The reason it's under-reported is that they don't want to come out to their friends or families because it's not safe," she said.

On Wednesday, some Hawai'i students will remain silent at school as part of a national protest against harassment and discrimination of gay and lesbian students.

"Obviously, we don't want any child harassed for any reason," Gabbard wrote. "But the good news is that the problem we were led to believe exists in our schools — that there is rampant anti-gay harassment — simply does not exist."

Greg Knudsen, a DOE spokesman, said the school board pursued the rule because it acknowledged that anti-gay harassment was a problem. "We are saying that any harassment, large or small, should not be tolerated," he said.

Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8084.