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.

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.”


Photo by Mark Arbeit

At Mililani Ike Elementary, one of a minority of public schools with an anti-bullying program in place, Officer Josie Kaanehe teaches students about bullying as part of the DARE program.

The widespread use of chat rooms, instant messaging and online networking sites such as MySpace give bullies another way to harass students. It’s common for bullying to originate online and turn up on school grounds, where physical fights result.

“Cyberbullying is a rising concern,” says Detective Chris Duque, computer crime investigator for HPD. “Unlike identity theft, cyberbullying is not normally categorized as a crime and therefore law enforcement does not intervene.” Unless a crime is committed such as defacing a person’s online profile, it is not illegal to tease and taunt via the Internet.

In recent years, concerns over bullying and cyberbullying have taken center stage at legislatures around the country. Currently, at least a dozen states are considering anti-bullying laws. Several of those efforts were prompted by the suicides of bullying victims in their states.  

Similar measures at Hawaii’s state Legislature have fizzled in recent years. In 2006, Kaanehe authored an unsuccessful resolution calling for legislators to enact an anti-bullying law. The measure died after the BOE told legislators that the DOE’s existing policy, Chapter 19, sufficiently addressed the issue.

In January of this year, 63 out of Hawaii’s 76 legislators voted for bills that would fund anti-bullying programs in the public schools and require the DOE to strengthen its anti-bullying procedures. The legislation included a confidential reporting process for cyberbullying victims and would have required schools to record, investigate and respond to incidents. Those measures died, as well.

Senate Education chairman Norman Sakamoto says the Legislature should not pass anti-bullying legislation unless the BOE proposes it, since board members are already looking into the issue. “The hope at this stage is that the DOE will come up with better recommendations,” says Sakamoto.

DOE spokesman Greg Knudsen says, “If we were ignoring or refusing to do anything about it, the Legislature could jump in, but at this point, it would just be duplication of effort.”

who initiated the Senate bill, disagrees. “Despite the DOE’s existing policies and procedures, the policies have not been effective in reducing bullying,” she says. State Rep. John Mizuno, who introduced an identical bill in the House, says he will revive the measure next year.

The failure of the state to take quicker action has been a major disappointment for Kaanehe. As part of the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program where officers teach anti-drug programs in local schools, Kaanehe noticed that children as young as kindergarten age were being bullied. She soon became Hawaii’s representative for BPUSA.

 “Being a rep, parents are able to contact me through the Web site and tell me about their situation,” says Kaanehe, who recently tried to help the family of an 11-year-old who was contemplating suicide.  “I know of two families who couldn’t afford to move to a different school district or put their kids in private schools, but also couldn’t take the pain it was causing their kids. Both families packed up and moved to the Mainland.”

Many more students and families don’t have the option of moving away from bullying problems—an option that families should never have to take. Last summer, for instance, a 13-year-old boy we’ll call Jerry enrolled in a Big Island intermediate school and caught the unwanted attention of students from a neighboring high school. They started bullying Jerry off campus. One of the bullies, whom we’ll call Rick, left threatening messages on Jerry’s cell phone.


“So we did alternative things,” says Jerry’s mother, Bonnie, who serves as the president of the school’s parent-teacher organization. “My son stopped playing sports after school on Wednesdays because the high school boys get out early and wait for the younger boys outside the gate. He stopped going to movies because the high school boys go there and intimidate the younger boys.”

But the bullying did not end there. The following semester, Rick attacked Jerry off campus, beating him until he had lumps on his head. “Two of the high school boys took videos of the beating with their cell phones and showed them around the intermediate and high school campuses,” Bonnie says. “Then the boys erased the videos so they couldn’t be used as evidence.”

Worried about further repercussions, Jerry begged his mother not to pursue the incident. “So I talked to the police but didn’t press charges,” Bonnie says. “Jerry was terrified.” Rick’s parents refused to meet with Bonnie, who went into counseling with her son when he started having nightmares, walking in his sleep and exhibiting signs of becoming a bully himself.

Only a minority of public schools has implemented comprehensive anti-bullying programs. Many schools just don’t have time for new programs, especially with the pressure of meeting requirements set by No Child Left Behind and Act 51, says professor Beth Pateman, chairman of the elementary education program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “A lot of times, teachers don’t know how to respond if there’s a bullying incident, and kids say teachers don’t see it or don’t say anything.”

With procedures and disciplinary actions varying widely from school to school, victims—and bullies—often don’t get the help they need.

There are a handful of anti-bullying programs available to Hawaii’s 257 DOE schools. Two that focus on elementary schools are Quit It! and Bullyproof, created by bullying expert Dr. Nan Stein, a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women. The DOE does not track which programs schools use and was unable to tell us how many schools have implemented Stein’s programs. The programs focus on prevention rather than intervention. Pateman describes them as “cornerstone curriculum” that show teachers how to develop caring classroom communities from the start and help children recognize and prevent bullying.

One of the most effective and widely used anti-bullying programs locally is Breaking Out of the World Game (BOWG), offered by the nonprofit World Youth Network. At least 33 schools use it, and seven more are slated for training this year, according to the Kaneohe-based organization. The program was co-created by educator Trinidad Hunt, who grew up in Hawaii.

“Most programs only address the symptoms,” says co-creator Lynne Truair. “Trinidad goes for the root issues. She puts everyone through a series of methodologies, exercises and practices so they can

When Your Child is Being Bullied

Advice from Bully Police USA and Breaking Out of the World Game.

1.  Listen to your child. Let them tell you what happened in their own words. Take what they say seriously.

2.  Collaborate with your child on strategies to stop the bullying.

3.  When dealing with the school, be fair (they probably don’t know about the bullying) and diplomatic (you’ll get better results). Call your child’s teacher, meet with her/him and request a daily update. If you don’t get a satisfactory response, contact the counselor or principal. If you still aren’t satisfied, have
your documents ready and follow step 5 below.

4.  Document everything. Tape record statements, type them up and have witnesses sign the statements. Take pictures of injuries, places, people, etc. Get as much information as possible on the bullying incidents—names, dates, times and locations—as well as on everyone you talk to at the school.

5.  After speaking with administrators, write a recap of what was said. Fax a copy to them and ask them to change anything that is incorrect. Let them know you will continue to do this. Keeping and sharing detailed documents will help the school admit it has a bullying problem and that it must take responsibility.

understand what it feels like, where it comes from, that we’re all in this together, nobody’s to blame and we all have to work on ourselves.”

farrington high school principal Catherine Payne adopted BOWG in 2001 after seeing it work for juvenile delinquents at Olomana School’s Youth Correctional Facility. Every freshman at Farrington must now attend BOWG training, which takes place over four days. “Her program is not just saying, ‘Don’t bully,’—it’s comprehensive,” Payne says. “It’s enhanced our guidance and counseling efforts, and it’s helped students see the bigger picture. Our students discover that the things done to them result in how they are now and how they treat others.”

Hunt’s training also helps the teachers and staff. “It’s quite moving to see the staff become aware of how they were affected when they were young and how they engage in bullying behavior now, because adults do it, too,” Payne says.

At Kealakehe Intermediate School, principal Don Merwin reports a 40 percent decline in the number of disciplinary referrals since his school adopted BOWG in 2005. “It’s giving kids information but also working with them on emotional and social levels,” Merwin says. “We explore ways to deal with people differently in order to break the cycle of bullying.”

Hunt describes one particularly moving experience she had while finishing a training session at Wahiaw-a Middle School in February 2005. She sat with 27 of the school’s most difficult students in a U-shape on the library floor. “We’re going around the closing circle and they’re sharing how they’re going to put this into action in their lives,” Hunt says. “Kids are saying, I’m not going to tease my sister any more when I go home.

“Then a big kid, the worst bully in the school … jumps up and says, ‘I just want you to know I need to apologize to my teacher.’ His teacher has just entered and he looks her in the eyes, ‘Because I have been terribly, terribly rude to you and I am so sorry.’ She breaks into tears. He turns to his girlfriend and says, ‘I need to apologize to you because you’re my best friend and I always put you down, I don’t mean to, I am so sorry.’ Then he runs to me and pulls me up and says, ‘Thank you, Aunty, for coming,’ and he hugs me, puts me back down and sits down.

“Nobody’s breathing because this is the worst of the worst, this kid. Everybody’s crying. Then I sat down with the teachers. His teacher is still crying, saying, ‘I don’t believe it.’”

But most students in Hawaii public schools won’t have the opportunity to benefit from anti-bullying programs like BOWG. On the Big Island, Bonnie worries about what will happen to her son this fall, when he enrolls at the same high school Rick currently attends—one of the many Hawaii schools that has no bullying program in place. “I’ve talked to the vice principal at the high school, who told me he can only take action if an incident happens on campus,” Bonnie says. “Otherwise it’s outside of his jurisdiction.”                            

Pamela Gibson is an Oahu-based freelancer and song lyricist. She often writes articles that advocate for children.