Federal investigators find widespread bullying in Hawaii public schools

Federal investigators find widespread bullying in Hawaii public schools
Updated: Mar. 5, 2018 at 5:01 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Nearly 1 in 3 Hawaii public school students said they've been the victims of bullying or harassment, according to a survey conducted as part of a years-long federal compliance review of the state Education Department's handling of bullying and harassment complaints.

The review found a system — the 10th-largest in the United States — struggling to handle bullying and harassment on campus and failing to take steps to protect victims or follow up. It also found tens of thousands of students were victimized again after reporting an incident of bullying or harassment.

The statewide bullying survey, conducted during the 2014-15 school year, included nearly 70,000 Hawaii students. It found:

  • Nearly 40 percent of students said incidents of bullying they'd experienced or witnessed made them feel unsafe at school.
  • The majority of students who reported being bullied at school said that they were harassed based on race, national origin, sex or because of a disability.
  • More than half of bullying incidents were reported to a teacher or other school employee. Schools took no action to stop the bullying in 15 percent of cases.
  • And over half of students who said they reported bullying or harassment were victimized again after the initial incident.

The U.S. Education Department Office of Civil Rights completed the exhaustive review in January, and schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto informed Board of Education members last week of how Hawaii schools plan to address the issues in a broad "resolution agreement" with the federal government.

Under the agreement, the DOE pledged to hire Title IX coordinators to more swiftly address bullying at schools, revise its policies for handling harassment complaints, bolster training, and prominently display its non-discrimination and anti-harassment policy online and in printed handouts.

Kishimoto told Board of Education members that while OCR completed its investigation at the beginning of the year, the final conclusions of the review don't "take into account the significant progress that the HIDOE has made in improving its processes and revising its procedures since the compliance review began."

On Monday, Kishimoto told Hawaii News Now that DOE has already hired 11 new compliance officers since January and is looking to fill another four positions. She also said training is underway in schools to encourage students to come forward if they're being harassed.

[READ: Hawaii's resolution agreement with the U.S. Department of Education]
[READ: Hawaii's schools superintendent letter to Board of Education on federal review]

The U.S. DOE launched its review of Hawaii schools in 2011.

And as part of the study, investigators combed over discipline records for 197 incidents of student harassment at 29 schools from 2014 to 2016.

One key area of concern was the dearth of reports made on bullying incidents. The survey found that at least 1,284 harassment incidents happened across the 29 schools in the 2014-15 school year, but just 113 reports were made.

Investigators said the discipline records included incidents of inappropriate sexual language and touching, racial slurs and violence (fighting provoked by the use of racial slurs), and disability-related harassment.

And in most cases, investigators said, the records included no details on whether anything was done to protect victims or whether any follow-up was done to make sure the bullying had stopped.

The OCR reviews comes on the heels of a separate U.S. Education Department audit into sexual harassment complaints at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. That review found the university's flagship campus did not fully comply with federal law when dealing with student reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

This story will be updated.

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