Wailuku parents pray, march in order to protest school bullying

Anti-bullying suit against state DOE alleges negligence

Brooksie Kenolio (foreground) said the weekly walk around Wailuku Elementary School on Tuesday is a way of supporting friend Danielle Saffery (right), whose 4th-grade son said he is being bullied at Wailuku Elementary School. The Maui News / KEHAULANI CERIZO photos

WAILUKU — Five parents on Tuesday launched what they say will be a weekly march around Wailuku Elementary School to pray and protest against bullying.

The group is rallying around their friend Danielle Saffery of Happy Valley, whose son said he’s been verbally and physically abused by Wailuku Elementary schoolmates for the last two years. They invite others to join them at 11 a.m. Tuesdays.

“We are standing in the gap for all kids in school,” said Brooksie Kenolio of Happy Valley. “People want to help but they don’t know how. They can come walk or pray with us.

“The problem gets swept under the rug,” she added. “The result is in our prison system — you see the bullies and the bullied.”

Saffery’s son, a 4th-grader, first told his mom about pushing and name-calling in unsupervised bathrooms and hallways when he was in 2nd grade. She didn’t intervene then, but once the boy’s grades started to drop, Saffery talked to his teacher. That did not stop the incidents.

Parents Cherrae Torres (from left), Danielle Saffery, Chantia Kaulia, Brooksie Kenolio and Deniese Mata marched around Wailuku Elementary School on Tuesday in prayer and protest against bullying. Saffery said her son, a Wailuku Elementary 4th-grader, has been experiencing bullying for two years.

“School should be a safe place for all kids to be who they are,” Saffery said.

Saffery and the others said on Tuesday that they were unaware that a former Wailuku Elementary family had joined a class-action lawsuit alleging bullying in Hawaii public schools, filed last year by Oahu-based attorney Eric Seitz. The suit alleges that the Department of Education isn’t doing enough to prevent bullying.

“I don’t think schools in Hawaii are safe right now,” Seitz said Wednesday.

Since the lawsuit was filed in August, he said his office has received 30 to 50 other bullying complaints, and they continue to come in weekly.

Seitz is working on adding other cases to the lawsuit, including a recent incident involving the bullying of a disabled student.

Maui resident a plaintiff in lawsuit

Three Hawaii families are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, including Maui resident Anna Grove, whose daughter T.G. was sexually harassed and bullied during the 2017-18 school year, the lawsuit said. After several reports to Wailuku Elementary officials, the school failed to investigate or take action to protect T.G., which led to escalating harassment, including threats to “kill her and choke her in the bathroom,” the lawsuit said.

T.G. suffered medical complications due to the stress and later changed schools, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit alleges that the DOE was negligent in its handling of bullying and harassment complaints, and that its failure to act to protect students should be considered child abuse. It also alleges misuse of federal funds and intentional infliction of emotional distress, among other claims.

Parents claim their children experienced physical harm, sexual harassment, racial slurs, name-calling, cyberbullying and other forms of abuse in recent years.

DOE spokeswoman Lindsay Chambers said Wednesday that the department is unable to comment or to provide information on pending litigation.

She pointed to state anti-bullying resources, including a joint survey released in 2018 by the DOE, the Department of Health and the University of Hawaii that showed students are reporting fewer incidents of bullying and cyberbullying. Christina Kishimoto, DOE superintendent, called the numbers gathered over a two-year period “a positive trend that we want to see continue.”

Chambers also sent information on a new anti-bullying smartphone app designed to improve responsiveness through confidential reporting. The “Speak Now” app had a soft launch for middle schools in January and will have a formal launch this month. High schools will follow in September, and elementary schools are slated to be added in September 2020.

“I want to emphasize that this is just another tool that students can use to report incidents of bullying,” Chambers said. “They are still encouraged to talk to a trusted adult, teacher, administrator, etc.”

Bullying taking on new forms

Emilio Macalalad, a Molokai High School teacher and island representative for the Hawaii State Teachers Association’s Human Civil Rights Committee, said he doesn’t think bullying has gotten worse, it just has taken on new forms.

“I don’t see it going away,” he said. “I see the bullying taking shape in a different way. Now you see things like cyberbullying, which lingers in students’ minds. They feel like they can’t escape.”

Macalalad said administrators, teachers and families share responsibility when it comes to combatting bullying, which can lead to suicide if not addressed. He emphasized education and keeping the lines of communication open among all parties — bullying victims and perpetrators.

“It will be an ongoing effort,” he said. “But I do believe there is hope.”

Different trains of thought

Corey Rosenlee, president of HSTA, the union that represents 13,700 public school teachers, said there are two trains of thought on bullying.

One is to kick the bully out of school. Rosenlee doesn’t believe this option solves the problem because bullying is often a learned behavior. Student bullies still may deal with emotional and physical abuse at home.

The other line of thought calls for deploying a variety of approaches for a multifaceted problem.

“I have a child who goes to public school,” he said. “And if my child was bullied, I would want it to end. The question is how are we going to do this?”

One piece of the solution could be to increase the ratio of counselors to students, he said. Currently, one counselor may be responsible for 600 students.

“When the offense occurs, it’s hard to deal with both victim and bully,” Rosenlee said. “If people really want to solve the problem, we should have a lot more counselors in schools. We don’t hear that cry often enough.”

Seitz, whose two adult children are schoolteachers in the public school system, said “the system is mired in all types of bureaucracy.”

“More parent activism is needed for change, he said, calling the Wailuku parents’ march “wonderful.”

“I think parents need to be active,” Seitz said. “The more activism and involvement by parents to demand what students minimally need — being safe . . . the better.”

“Lots of kids are going through distress,” he said. “That’s a fact of life. But the question is are you in a position to respond to what is happening to these kids and intervene before it’s too serious.

“There’s a condescending or self-righteous attitude among school administrators that it’s not their job and they don’t have to do that. They don’t provide students, teachers or parents with a supportive, safe environment.”

Saffery said the weekly march is not to place blame but rather to pray and to call attention to the problem. She added that “it’s not a religious thing.”

“We pray for the teachers; it’s stressful for them,” said Saffery, who attends Living Way Church Maui in Happy Valley. “I’m a parent of five, I can’t imagine them with 20-plus students.”

Saffery said she grew up being bullied, and instead of dealing with the issue, her mom moved her to another school, which didn’t allow her to confront the problem.

Saffery said she wants to let her son know that she is standing up for him.

“We need solutions,” she said. “We hope we can have more awareness. . . . You feel so powerless at times.”

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.