HONOKAA, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - In a photograph posted on Instagram, five Honokaa High School varsity football players can be seen flashing middle fingers above a profane sentence that seemed to be directed at Konawaena's team.
Honokaa's academic and athletic administrators called the act cyberbullying. The players in the photograph and the one taking it were kicked off the football team for violating the DOE's social media policy.
"They went into an opposing team's locker room and did these photos, and put offensive language on top of the post," Department of Education communications Director Donalyn Dela Cruz said.
Art Souza, Hawaii District complex area superintendent, added that the discipline is appropriate.
"As a school principal and as a coach myself I've suspended kids for missing practice or being insubordinate to a coach on a football field," he said. "I would think that this rises to a level even above that."
Honokaa has one game left, and the photograph -- published in the Hawaii Tribune-Herald on Thursday -- is spurring lots of community debate. The players booted from the squad are seniors.
Honokaa student Israel Rios said the punishment the players got is too harsh.
"They didn't threaten. It was their own personal social media," he said. "So I think they should be back on the team for the last game that they play this year."
But Dela Cruz said cyberbullying is a serious issue that can't be ignored.
"Students need to understand that whether it's bullying or cyberbullying, it's inappropriate. It's behavior that is unbecoming of our public school students," she said. "Just because you didn't push somebody does not mean you're not a bully anymore," Dela Cruz said. " There's a whole cyber world and we're watching you."
The Honokaa players took the photo while wearing their team uniforms, and they were on school property during a DOE-sanctioned event.
Honokaa's administrators didn't suspend the students from school, but could if they don't write an assigned paper on bullying and cyberbullying.
Souza, the complex superintendent, said the photo was a "violation of team rules because these students were involved in inappropriate behavior while representing their team, their community, their coaches, their parents."
Honokaa's team will fill the empty roster spots with junior varsity players now that the six varsity players have been benched.