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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, February 14, 2006

DOE looks into bullying policies

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

Bullying and harassment are not just commonplace in Hawai'i's public schools, they're pervasive, according to a committee aimed at helping the state Department of Education crack down on this destructive behavior and protect students.

The Safe Schools Community Advisory Committee has been at work for a year on the problem and in another year expects to have recommendations that can be implemented systemwide in the state's schools.

Yesterday, representatives of the special panel told a Board of Education committee that some students have told them school administrators and teachers even seem to condone some of the bullying.

"I have students tell me not only is it peers, but teachers and principals allow it to happen," said Robin Nussbaum, program coordinator of the group Queers for Justice, and a representative from the American Friends Service Committee who serves on the committee.

"I have students tell me 'Oh yeah, the teacher was standing right there and did nothing,' " said Nussbaum, adding that 80 percent to 90 percent of gay students say they have faced harassment or bullying because of their sexual orientation.

"One principal stated (to a student who reported bullying), 'It would be different if you didn't act so gay.'

"Students are really afraid," continued Nussbaum. "The gay and lesbian ones are afraid to be outed. And they're afraid to report bullying."

While gay students are only one group that suffers bullying and harassment in Hawai'i's public schools, Nussbaum said it's so destructive that truancy, drop-out rates, mental health issues and even suicide attempts increase among those who are picked on.

The BOE has made bullying and violence in the schools one of its priority issues this year. At the same time the broad-based committee appointed a year ago by schools superintendent Pat Hamamoto has been examining the issue, and has been bringing young people and teachers into its meetings to talk about their experiences. As well, committee members draw on their own outreach networks of young people that they work with.

"We all know it's a problem," said board member Breene Harimoto, "but how big a problem is it, and what is being done?"

A recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 14.4 percent of students ages 12 to 18 report being bullied at school.

But education specialist Jean Nakasato, in the Student Support Services Branch, said the DOE has no solid statistics on the extent of bullying in the schools because data have not been kept accurately and definitions have been poor.

Plus there are concerns about lack of reporting, not just because students are afraid, but because the forms for teacher reporting are complicated and time-consuming.

Board member Mary Cochran agreed, adding that schools may need more counselors to help with these issues.

"We need accountability and better reporting," she said. "When you're a second-grader, it's a big thing."

Nussbaum and fellow committee member Nancy Kern, HIV prevention coordinator with the Department of Health, said what needs to change is the "culture in the schools" that allows such discrimination.

"We need a classroom environment that doesn't allow this," said Nussbaum.

Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com.