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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, January 20, 2009

State faulted in bullying case

By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Staff Writer

Federal education officials have cited the Hawai'i Department of Education for failure to take "prompt and effective steps" to stop harassment at schools in the Big Island's Kealakehe complex.

From 2003 to 2005, students at Kealakehe Intermediate in Kailua, Kona, were allegedly subjected to racial and sexual harassment by other students, according to a Dec. 31 report by the U.S. Department of Education. Federal education officials conducted an investigation after parents complained that school officials did not act to resolve complaints of bullying against their children.

The students, whose names were not revealed, experienced racially and sexually derogatory name-calling, including "f---ing haole," "stupid haole," "haole bitch," "haole whore," "Micro" and "Jap." Federal officials also said a number of incidents involved assaults and physical harassment.

The U.S. DOE and the state have entered into a settlement agreement to adhere to federal laws and regulations that govern civil rights and education.

Parent Tina Mohr, who filed the original complaint that led to the investigation, said her twin daughters experienced verbal harassment at Kealakehe Intermediate. They had even been physically assaulted, she said.

One of her daughters 11 years old at the time came home with a broken jaw, Mohr said. On another occasion, the girl suffered a shoulder injury. Both her daughters would consistently come home with bruises, cuts and stories of bullying and taunting, she said.

"I had a very hard time when I did try to report it. ... I felt like I was being stonewalled," Mohr said.

Mohr said she filed the complaint with the U.S. DOE after learning that other parents and students had similar experiences at schools in the Kealakehe complex, which consists of a high school, an intermediate school and three elementary schools.

Since the complaints, the state DOE has taken steps to enforce anti-discrimination rules and has conducted training sessions with school administrators aimed at preventing bullying in the schools, said Susan Kitsu, director of the DOE's Civil Rights Compliance Office.

"I think things have definitely improved. I can't speak to what was going on at the time; I don't know specially because I wasn't at the DOE," Kitsu said. "But I can tell you, that since coming to the DOE, we've been extremely diligent in providing training, updating policies and getting the word out to administrators about immediately addressing these types of issues."

Federal officials found that while the DOE had policies and procedures for dealing with harassment, the school system "did not provide adequate notice of the procedures for the prompt and equitable resolutions of complaints."

Kitsu disputed that finding, saying it has been a long-standing practice to send home information about the DOE's Civil Rights Compliance Office and the Chapter 19 administrative rule, which governs conduct in schools.

"We issue an annual pamphlet to the students regarding their civil rights in different languages. We issue that every year and continue to issue that," Kitsu said.

While numerous complaints had been made to school officials, school administrators told federal education investigators that they felt powerless to prevent the harassment because it was so prevalent.

Federal officials gathered evidence of 45 referrals of sexual and racial harassment during the 2004-2005 school year and a similar number during the 2003-2004 school year at Kealakehe Intermediate School.

According to the settlement agreement between the federal government and the state, the DOE will review its policies and procedures for addressing complaints of discrimination on the basis of race, sex or disability and complaints of retaliation. In addition, the DOE will produce a written plan on how to prevent students from being subjected to racial or sexual harassment or retaliation.

Kitsu said the DOE already established its anti-harassment, anti-bullying, anti-discrimination policy in February 2007. The department has been conducting training on the policy with school administrators, she said.

Reach Loren Moreno at lmoreno@honoluluadvertiser.com.