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Are Hawaii Schools Safe?


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“We think creating some guidelines, expectations and best practices for schools to share would be helpful,” says Cheri Nakamura, director of Hawaii-based educational advocacy group the He‘e Coalition.

The Department of Education, it seems, agrees.

“For the 2012-2013 school we’re implementing a comprehensive, long-term approach,” DOE deputy superintendent Ronn Nozoe said. “We’re having schools identify and select a research-based, anti-bullying and character program.”

Nozoe says behavior issues are dealt with on a student-by-student basis. He says in 85 percent of cases, student issues—whether bullying or academic—can be handled with minimal intervention. Schools are required to identify and monitor these interventions, big and small.

The devil is in the data, and data-analysis requirements are already in place, says Nozoe, with quarterly misconduct meetings with superintendents, and reviews done at the school level. “Schools are much more focused on the data and we’ve invested a bunch into it,” he says.

Next year, the plan adds a coordinator to each complex area to give additional support to address student issues, among them, kids who have discipline problems.

“We’re not doing this without a standard,” Nozoe says. “Schools have assessed, with principals, where each school is.”

Some educators warn that adopting an anti-bullying program isn’t enough.

“I’m not saying having a character education program would be detrimental,” Mulcahy says. But if leadership isn’t applying anti-bullying methods constantly and beyond the walls of the classroom, the best program in the world won’t work, she says. “They have to articulate a vision for how they’re going to use a program to improve the climate of the campus.”

DOE data details violence in schools serious enough to result in suspension. Violent incidents include assault, extortion, robbery, sexual offenses, terroristic threatening, dangerous weapons, firearms and harassment.

1999–2000                          0.9%                                                                               2,956
2004–2005                          1.4%                                                                               3,022
2006–2007                          1.9%                                                                               3,528*
2009–2010                          1.4%                                                                               2,541

*2006-07 school year had the decade’s highest number of violent incidents

Beating Bullying

Mulcahy said she took a multifaceted approach to fight the bullying in her school. The first step involved parents: At her first back-to-school night as principal in 2004, she announced that the school had a serious bullying issue and parents were part of the problem.

“I told them I couldn’t help the issue unless they were willing to join me,” she says. Parents’ behavior had to fall in line with her expectations, she said. “I said, telling racist jokes, making fun [of differences] leads to bullying. If you’re doing it at the dinner table, they’re bringing it in to school.” She got a standing ovation.

Involving parents also helped her stay on the vanguard, bringing to her attention issues like cyber bullying, which was unknown to her until parents printed out bullying messages kids were sending each other on the dominant social network site  at that time, MySpace.

Next, she increased the reporting of and response to bullying incidents by defining bullying behavior and promising to review every incident immediately. “I needed to see how much [bullying] was really going on, and then see what programs we could use to address it.”

Students learned to resolve their issues with the help of adults and students. Peer mentoring, in which specially trained kids mediate problems between their fellow students, provides more lasting reconciliations than adults negotiating compromises, said Mulcahy. She also drew on school counselors’ expertise in devising educational programs.

Mulcahy admits it was exhausting work. “It was a constant effort to keep it on [our] minds, model it and to do everything I could to bring parents in.”

The hardest part was changing expectations of student behavior. “Some adults think some amount of bullying is warranted to help a kid grow up. We have to make sure we aren’t buying into the lies of the parents in [previous] generations. It’s not just a rite of passage.”


Finding Alternatives

Some worry that things might get worse than day-to-day bullying. One of them is city prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro. “I think it’s only a matter of time before we see more violence in schools,” he says. He’s concerned that he’s seeing the number of kids being prosecuted going up, at increasingly younger ages. “We stop [adjudicating cases for juveniles] at 12 years old, but some are younger,” he says, such as a nine-year-old who recently robbed a store at knifepoint for ice cream.

Kaneshiro is championing a bill that would establish two alternative schools for at-risk youth, including those who have disciplinary problems. Alternative schools are nothing new on Oahu. But the island has only two schools—one for the central district, and one for windward. Kaneshiro is looking to add two more, one in town and the other on the leeward side.

“I was approached by businesspeople, saying that juveniles were costing them a lot of business,” Kaneshiro says. “I don’t think it’s productive to detain juveniles, but we don’t have alternatives.”

The High Core/Storefront School in Wahiawa is 46 years old, and plucks troubled kids out of mainstream classrooms. According to its coordinator, Colette Miyamoto-Kajiwara, there’s nothing magical about their teaching methods. But having a captive audience, extended hours, strict rules and a dedicated staff helps.

“Structure is real important,” says Miyamoto-Kajiwara. “They have to be there at 8 a.m. or they have to scrub toilets or run a lap.”

“We spend a lot of time teaching them about honesty, and truthfulness, and respect for other people’s thinking. Lots of kids are lacking a conscience,” Miyamoto-Kajiwara says. “We almost have to build in empathy for them to feel for someone else.”

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Honolulu Magazine May 2020
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