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Community rallies around longtime Haiku teacher

Monica Nakahashi placed on leave while investigation pending

Lehua Kahaleuahi-Cockett (center) holds a sign expressing her family’s support for Haiku Elementary School kindergarten teacher Monica Nakahashi alongside her uncle Joe Abella, her son Keolu, her daughter Malie and her cousin Amber Payne. They were among the many families who rallied outside the school on Monday after Nakahashi was placed on leave pending an ongoing investigation. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photos

HAIKU — Second-generation students, alumni and former staff members rallied Monday behind a longtime Haiku Elementary School teacher who was put on leave and escorted off campus due to an ongoing investigation.

Kindergarten teacher Monica Nakahashi was escorted off campus Friday, sparking outrage and a demonstration by hundreds of community members on Monday afternoon outside the school.

“There’s not much I can share because of confidentiality reasons, but we’re here to show our support for my mother’s character,” Christy Ulu, Nakahashi’s daughter, said Monday. “She’s been a teacher for over 40 years, and she has nothing but love for her children.”

Nakahashi was unable to comment Monday, but her family posted a message on Facebook saying that she was escorted off campus Friday by the new principal and vice principal with no time to pack up her things. They said she was facing retaliation for “speaking out and filing a formal complaint against the microaggressive behavior and actions of her principal who has been bullying and harassing her since July 2020.”

Nakahashi is currently the only kindergarten teacher at Haiku Elementary and has no plans to retire, according to her family.

Haiku Elementary School kindergarten teacher Monica Nakahashi greets supporters, many of them former students, along Pauwela Road on Monday afternoon.

Ulu said Monday that her mother was given a letter stating the reasons for placing her on leave but had no warning prior to Friday. She had not seen the letter and was unable to disclose its contents.

“We’re here to oppose the unjust and unfair treatment that was done to her, regardless of any internal investigation,” Ulu said. “She is not a criminal. She does not deserve to be escorted off campus like a criminal.”

Principal Karen Walker told parents in a letter Saturday that an active investigation was underway but that the school could not discuss the details because it was a “confidential personnel matter.”

“We respect the privacy of all of our staff members, and we hope you will do the same by not spreading rumors or misinformation,” Walker said. “This is a courtesy we extend to all of our Ha’iku Elementary ‘ohana. While this process is carried out with due diligence, please be assured we will do our very best to minimize any disruption to students.”

State Department of Education spokeswoman Nanea Kalani also said that DOE could not share further details. Kalani was able to confirm that Nakahashi was placed on department-directed leave.

Students and supporters of Haiku kindergarten teacher Monica Nakahashi stand Monday just outside the campus where Nakahashi was asked to leave Friday.

According to the DOE’s website, department-directed leave is initiated “when credible allegations of employee misconduct arise or employees demonstrate conduct that jeopardizes a safe and healthy learning and work environment.”

Parents and students who flocked to the demonstration Monday were baffled. Lehua Kahaleuahi-Cockett is a former student who lived next door to Nakahashi for most of her life and whose grandma worked with Nakahashi for at least 30 years.

“She loves the kids inside and outside of school,” Kahaleuahi-Cockett said. “She’s honest. She has so much love for everybody, so I just don’t understand. I can’t imagine anything that she’s done would be worth investigating.”

She and other former students described Nakahashi as the kind of teacher who welcomed everyone with open arms, who had the best snacks and the coolest animals, including turtles at one point.

“She would always throw parties for holidays, always make the kids feel welcome,” said Shandi Yamaguchi, a former student whose daughter was also taught by Nakahashi. “She would always provide snacks and stuff so no kid went hungry. She’s just really kind, and I don’t know why and how this could happen.”

Kiana Kahoohanohano, a senior at King Kekaulike High School, said even after she left kindergarten, she would return as a 5th-grader to help open up Mrs. Nakahashi’s classroom in the morning.

“To this day I still talk to her and everything whenever I see her,” Kahoohanohano said. “She’s actually my inspiration to become a teacher, which I’m gonna go to college for next year.”

Lorie Yanuaria, who taught P.E. at the school for 14 years, said that Nakahashi was like a mentor to her.

“She’s really taught me what it looks like to be a teacher of integrity, a teacher that really cares and loves for her kids,” Yanuaria said. “Coming to school (at) Haiku is more than just a job. You come to a family.”

She added that Nakahashi was the kind of teacher who would speak up when something wasn’t right.

“She’s like none other,” Yanuaria said. “You get teachers that come and go. But she’s been here since the beginning of most of our careers.”

The crowd of supporters erupted into cheers when Nakahashi appeared Monday afternoon, driving slowly along Pauwela Road to thank community members and greet former students.

While the DOE investigates Nakahashi, the Haiku School Parent Teacher Association called for “a full and complete review of Principal Karen Walker and Vice Principal Linda Marrs” that would include an anonymous survey from parents and teachers as well as in-person interviews.

In a letter issued over the weekend, the PTA criticized the administration’s lack of leadership and communication.

“Regardless of any allegations and internal investigations, the administration’s handling of Mrs. Nakahashi’s leave was inappropriate and heartbreaking,” the PTA said.

Baldwin-Kekaulike-Maui Complex Area Superintendent Kathleen Dimino said in a statement Monday that “the department maintains that matters related to employee investigations are treated with the highest level of sensitivity and confidentiality.”

“The department purposefully ensures confidentiality, to the extent possible, to avoid divisiveness on school campuses, to mitigate speculation, and to avoid public exposure or humiliation,” Dimino said.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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