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Nearly a fifth of Hawaii’s school-age children have been victims, bullies or both. And schools aren’t required to do anything about it.


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Photo by Mark Arbeit

The bullying toward Gini Gustafson got so bad, her mother transferred her to a private school.
While attending a Central Oahu elementary school in 2005, 8-year-old Gini Gustafson suffered from frequent headaches, stomachaches and fevers. Her mother, Becky, asked her repeatedly if something was wrong at school but Gini insisted that wasn’t the case.

When Gini started averaging one visit a week to her pediatrician, the doctor suggested testing her for meningitis. Becky explained to her daughter, “That will mean putting a long needle in your back that really hurts.”

That’s when Gini broke down, sobbing. “I’m being picked on in A+ and recess,” she told her mother. Even one of the friends she’d had since kindergarten was making fun of her. “I have no friends now,” she said.

The bullying had started in Gini’s after-school care program when another student denied stealing her calculator. Becky complained to the administration but nothing was done. Soon after, the student began picking on Gini, calling her fat and making fun of her clothes. “Typical of bullying,” Becky said, “the other students who were Gini’s friends joined the bully as a way to avoid being the next victim.”

Becky again went to the school’s administrators for help, but “They just wouldn’t deal with it,” she says. Gini’s fevers continued until her mother transferred her to a private school in Kapolei.

Sadly, Gini’s story is not unique.  According to surveys taken from 2000 through 2003 by the national watchdog organization Bully Police USA (BPUSA), 18 percent of Hawaii’s school-age children have been victims, bullies or both. But bullying is frequently underreported. A 2001 Bethel University survey of 15,000 U.S. children puts the national average higher, with 30 percent of children involved in bullying. A 2004 survey of adolescents, funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, found that 41 percent had been bullied in the last school term.

There are many parents like Becky who argue that the state is not doing enough to prevent and respond to bullying in its schools. Hawaii is one of 21 states that have no anti-bullying laws, according to BPUSA. Although the state Department of Education (DOE)’s Administrative Rules cover harassment in a section titled Chapter 19, the term “bullying” is not defined. Chapter 19 simply provides guidelines for schools, which state that the punishment for students who harass others can range from detention to dismissal. Each school is left to determine its own bullying policy, and many simply issue disciplinary referrals or suspend troublesome students, which some parents view as a slap on the wrist that fails to prevent future incidents. With procedures and disciplinary actions varying widely from school to school, victims—and bullies—often don’t get the help they need.

Board of Education (BOE) ombudsman Beth McKeen receives numerous complaints from parents not about the bullying itself, but about the way schools have handled the situation. According to the minutes of a June 2006 BOE meeting, McKeen testified that she received complaints about teachers who were nonresponsive or complacent and about administrative staff who failed to follow up on incidents or notify parents when a child was hurt. 

“School rules should be uniform,” insists Josie Kaanehe, an anti-bullying advocate, public school parent and Honolulu police officer. “Schools need to be consistent on how they deal with issues.”

Unless a crime such as assault occurs, parents have little recourse when their children’s schools fail to act on a complaint. Parents may be able to file a civil suit against the parents of the bully or the school, but these are tough cases to prove and, not surprisingly, are rarely filed.

Kaanehe often advises parents on what to do when schools don’t listen. “I tell them, when you walk into the school, carry a paper and pen with you and take notes,” she says. “If they tell you they’re going to look into it, they’re brushing you off.  You don’t accept that. You want to know what is going to be done. Don’t let more than a week go by without following up. Sometimes a bully can be arrested if crimes such as assault occur.”

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Honolulu Magazine June 2018
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