Saved ‘kolohe kid’ becomes savior

Kekaulike police resource officer wins national award

Marvin Tevaga

As a “kolohe kid” growing up in low-income housing, Marvin Tevaga realized he had another path, with help from a police school resource officer at Lahainaluna High School.

“She helped influence me to make better decisions,” Tevaga recalled. “Being around her, I felt comfortable. I didn’t feel this stigma of being a student and a police officer.”

Now, as police school resource officer himself at King Kekaulike High School, Tevaga tries to repay those who helped him, working not only as a law enforcement officer but taking on roles as counselor and teacher at the school of 1,200 students.

At times, he can be found playing his ukulele and singing on the Pukalani campus, lifting weights or playing volleyball with students and engaging youths in a pushup challenge.

“When I became a police officer, my No. 1 goal was to become a school resource officer,” Tevaga said. “That’s what I wanted to do — pass on aloha and grace that was shared with me.

“Right now, I’m making up for all the trouble I got into. For all the negatives, I got to do more positives.”

Tevaga’s work was recognized last month by the National Association of School Resource Officers, which selected him as the recipient of the 2018 Floyd Ledbetter National School Resource Officer of the Year Award.

“For a school resource officer to stand out for that kind of award, they have to go above and beyond,” said Mo Canady, executive director of the organization. “The No. 1 goal is to breach the gap between law enforcement and youth.

“It only goes to one school resource officer in the country. It’s a great honor.”

Canady said the award is so special that it will be presented at the opening ceremonies June 25 of the 28th annual NASRO National School Safety Conference in Reno, Nev., on the same stage where U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions will speak.

The MPD School Resource Officer unit of 11 officers supervised by Sgt. Terence Gomez will receive the Model Agency Award at the conference.

King Kekaulike Principal Mark Elliott was planning to travel to Reno on his own to support Tevaga. “I’ll be applauding and yelling the loudest, for sure,” Elliott said.

“We’re very proud of him,” Elliott said. “He’s being honored for something we already knew — that he’s the best.”

Tevaga is ending his fourth year as school resource officer at the school, where he estimates arrests have decreased by 80 percent over the past three years.

“We try to stop the fights before they happen,” Tevaga said. “We try to mediate. We address the drug concerns. We like for the kids to know the main purpose for coming to school is to get an education.”

Elliott said Tevaga has used his many talents, including music, to build relationships with students.

In a “tears-in-the-eyes moment,” Elliott recalled how he and Tevaga went to a classroom to talk to a Hawaiian immersion student who got in trouble in school for an infraction that wasn’t police-related.

“Marvin really wanted to check up on this student,” Elliott said. “They had a very emotional conversation. You don’t have to know the language to know he was being very supportive and cared, and he did it in fluent Hawaiian.”

Until then, Elliott said he hadn’t known that Tevaga is fluent in Hawaiian, as well as Samoan.

“He has offered our students his own home phone number if they end up in trouble at night or are with people who are intoxicated,” Elliott said. “He has told them he will come get them, no questions asked.

“He has a deep relationship with our students. It’s not a police officer and kid. I would call it Hawaiian style. I can’t imagine our school without him.”

Tevaga, who has four children of his own and a fifth on the way, said he thinks of the students as his.

“I feel like they are my kids ’cause they’re important to me, and I worry about them all the time,” he said.

When he gets a phone call at home after hours, he temporarily steps away from his role as husband and father to answer and to listen.

“Sometimes, they’re crying; sometimes, they’re calling for advice,” he said. “Sometimes, they ask what their curfew is.”

He tells students: “Obviously, you needed me for that moment, so don’t hesitate.”

A ‘troubled youth’

Born and raised in Lahaina, Tevaga was one of eight siblings and a “troubled youth,” who “made a lot of bad decisions, got in trouble with the law.”

At Lahainaluna, then-police school resource officer Myrna Sabas started a Future Club, reaching out to “rascal kids” like Tevaga to integrate them with youth they didn’t normally associate with.

“We got along,” Tevaga said. “In this group, I don’t feel that stigma of being a bad kid. I just feel like everybody else. I was hanging out with cheerleaders, honor students, football players, baseball players.”

Tevaga recalled thinking: “How about I be like them.”

He played football and played music in high school. “But then I was a troublemaker too,” he said. “I was a kolohe kid. I got sent down to the office more times than I can remember. Me and the vice principal got along very well.”

As a juvenile, Tevaga said he was arrested by some current MPD officers, including Lt. Scott Migita, commander of the police Juvenile Section where Tevaga now works, and Deputy Chief Dean Rickard.

“I just love that they gave me a second chance, third chance, fourth chance, fifth chance,” Tevaga said. “If at that moment, they told me that’s where my life would be, I would be nowhere. I would be a statistic.”

His surroundings and upbringing seemed to lead down one path. “But then I started to realize our circumstances may have influenced who we are, but we are responsible for who we become,” Tevaga said. “There’s more to life than getting in trouble, being arrested and being what people thought of us to be.”

Joining MPD

Tevaga, who graduated from Lahainaluna in 2001, was working as a musician when he heard on the radio that MPD was looking for police officers.

“I made a lot of bad decisions getting into trouble as a kid,” he said. “I thought maybe I can use that knowledge on a positive side.”

He talked to his wife, U’ilani, who said, “If you pass the test, I’ll support you.”

Six months later, in November 2008, he started work as a police officer.

“I didn’t feel any different,” he said. “I just felt like I was helping my community and my friends and family that I love out there.”

Tevaga worked in the Lahaina Patrol District for five years before becoming a school resource officer, for the first year working at both King Kekaulike and Kalama Intermediate School.

Tevaga and other school resource officers have arrested adults who were providing drugs to students off campus, at times acting on information from the Text-A-Tip program that allows students, staff and parents to report problems confidentially.

“I tell guys we arrest, ‘Tell people you know — if they’re dealing dope to kids, we’re going to come after them,’ ” Tevaga said. “All of it is for our kids. What we’re trying to create is a safe environment.”

Tevaga recalled how he and administrators were walking through the quad on campus when they were flagged down because a student wasn’t breathing.

Tevaga, who was an MPD cardiopulmonary resuscitation instructor, started CPR.

“Had we not been on campus, I don’t know how it would have went,” Tevaga said. “Later, to see that student graduate and walk on stage and grab their diploma, it was amazing. I will never forget that.”

Another success story came after Tevaga helped counsel a mother and daughter. In a letter a year later, the mother said the relationship had improved.

“She thanked us for being there for her,” he said.

This school year, when different groups of students wanted to claim a bench on campus and parents got involved in the dispute, Tevaga turned to music to resolve the conflict.

“I took my ukulele, sat in the quad right on the bench for the whole week and played music,” he said. “It’s not their bench, it’s not the other group’s bench. It’s our bench. It’s our school. That was my solution to that.

“When you feel the music, it’s an international language. There’s no discrimination of color, race, size. Music is international and everybody speaks that language. That is a bridge.”

Now the students hang out side by side, Tevaga said.

Tevaga has organized school traffic safety awareness campaigns and an annual welcome concert for students, with his group Matagi playing the first year.

“My goal is to say hello to everybody, all the kids,” Tevaga said. “Even if they shy away, I say good morning.”

By participating in activities with students, he hopes to develop conversations and relationships.

“I’m here to be a police officer, but I think it’s more important that I become someone that’s relatable to them first,” Tevaga said.

Elliott said Tevaga is too humble to talk about his community service, including distributing 125 pairs of shoes to children in orphanages near the Nepal border when Tevaga and his wife vacationed in India.

The couple raised funds to buy “shoes that grow” and are adjustable in size.

“He is somebody that gives back to the community,” Elliott said.

“He has love in his heart for our kids and a commitment to their safety,” Elliott said. “We know with all of our heart that Marvin will step up for us, and not having Marvin would be unimaginable. You never know. Certainly, in light of the times, having Marvin there and knowing Marvin is there, I feel safer.

“We all do.”

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at