School’s harsh punishment of star student on Maui turns into test of free speech

Published: Oct. 8, 2021 at 5:39 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 8, 2021 at 7:09 PM HST
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LAHAINA (HawaiiNewsNow) - Benjamin Lolesio is senior class vice president at Lahainaluna High, an honors student, and involved in several clubs, sports, and activities on campus.

“Leading up to this school year I was super excited,” Lolesio said. “Especially to see my classmates because that whole time in quarantine, we didn’t get to see anyone.”

This year, Lolesio was even voted homecoming king by his peers.

“He also felt all this work that he’s done for the school for all these years, that culmination, the highlight that he’s been given this honor,” said his mother, Tonata.

After several months of planning, Lolesio said two days before homecoming, LHS Principal Jeri Dean threatened to cancel the big event because of unclear COVID guidelines.

“I went on social media and I voiced my opinion just because I was really frustrated with the way she was handling things,” Lolesio said.

Lolesio’s Instagram post said that she was unqualified for her job.

As a result, Lolesio was suspended for 10 days, kicked off student council, kicked off the Homecoming Court, and banned from the event.

The principal claimed it was cyberbullying, which is a Class A offense in the Department of Education.

“Having been given a suspension for Class A cyberbullying, that could be something that could be detrimental to his future, going on to college and applying for scholarships,” Tonata said.

But Attorney Kristin Coccaro says Lolesio’s post was merely an opinion.

“The Lolesios and I agree, not a respectful post … but really nothing more than an opinion,” Coccaro said. “The disciplinary action that occurred as a result of that post was just over the top and it was not correct according to the DOE protocols and rules, nor was it constitutional.”

Coccaro cited another off-campus free speech case where the Supreme Court sided with a Pennsylvania teenager this past summer.

Days after Ben’s punishment, several community members protested outside Lahainaluna High School in support of him.

In a statement DOE said, “After discussion between the family and Lahainaluna High School, the school has agreed to reclassify student’s misconduct and revise the discipline issued to him.”

Ben’s punishment was downgraded to a Class D minor offense.

He and his family want the DOE to investigate and hold the principal accountable for her actions.

“I just hope a lot of people speak out and they find their voice and they choose to stand up against the wrong,” Ben said.

Hawaii News Now reached out to the principal for a comment, but did not receive a response.

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