Violent incidents frequent at Hawaii middle, high schools

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There is a problem with school violence in Hawaii.

It is happening nearly every day at some public school campuses. Some of the highest numbers happen among younger students.

Always Investigating wanted to know how safe our campuses are day in and day out, not just from a random intruder or a mass casualty attempt, but from any kind of violence.

The Department of Education tracks violent incidents, and Always Investigating got the numbers for every middle and high school across Hawaii.

Here’s what we found: In the last full school year, the top five campuses had hundreds of violent episodes on record, more than one incident of violence for every school day.

A principal of one of the campuses with the highest numbers stepped up to explain: “People hear the word violence and automatically jump to the conclusion that we’re talking about these kinds of severe incidences,” said Washington Middle School principal Michael Harano. “Violence includes a lot of different things.”

The principal is referring to classifications of severity within the report numbers. “Class B” is bullying, cyberbullying, disorderly conduct and hazing. “Class A” is terroristic threatening, assault, fighting, even sexual offenses.

Looking only at Class A violent offenses and ranking them according to percent of school population, the results show even more extremes.

school violence graphic

Waianae Intermediate School had 156 Class A offenses last school year, the equivalent of nearly one out of every five students offending.

The DOE declined to have the school’s principal address the matter on-camera with us, so we asked others in the community what they’ve heard and observed.

“Very disappointing, disturbing,” said Sen. Maile Shimabukuro, D, Waianae. “I know that there are other incidents that occur off-campus too. I get a lot of complaints that kids from the schools are in areas fighting off-campus, so I think the numbers are even higher than what’s there.”

It’s not just happening in Waianae. All of the top five “Class A” violent spots span the state, and all of the top five were middle schools.

“Developmentally, middle school is the most challenging time,” Harano explained. “Kids are going through more changes developmentally than at any other time in their life.”

“I’m aware this is a serious problem, but it was like, oh my goodness, this is shocking,” said psychologist Dr. Suzanne Gelb, after reviewing Always Investigating’s data. “So many kids are paying the price, both the offender and the victim.”

Gelb said it can become traumatizing, just as the higher-profile mass casualty events mainland schools have seen.

“When you actually go through it (frequent violent events) and experience it not once, not just an isolated incident, but repeatedly, it can be very waring on a child,” Gelb said.

What the numbers don’t reveal is how many are repeat offenders, and how many victims are involved or if they too are repeat victims. Schools try to keep track on their own.

“We flag and track repeat offenders. We see them in our office more often than other students,” Harano said. “We do have students that over and over make those kind of mistakes. Those are the ones we need to focus on and actually need to have more resources for those kinds of students.”

“I do appreciate the honesty that the administrators have shown in reporting these,” Shimabukuro said, “because we in the community need to know what’s happening, how bad it really is.”

So how about the least violent, at least according to reports logged by administration?

school violence graphic 2

Kalani, Moanalua, and the Mililani schools post the fewest number-wise as a rate of student population. Stevenson Middle reported about one-third the rate of Class A violence as neighboring Roosevelt High School, for instance.

When the “Class B” violence, the bullying and threat cases, are included, the violence-counts and rates-by-population at least double for most campuses.

Still, some have a lot of reports and others have barely a handful. We asked what would explain different the range in the number of incidents in similar community?

“Every school has that leeway to handle the situations the way they see fit,” Harano explained. “We choose at our school to document and put down everything that comes our way, no matter how big or small that is. Our numbers tend to run high because we report everything.”

But not everything, even those Class A incidents, gets reported to police. Again, schools get discretion.

“If students were to do that outside of the school, they could be arrested. So we make it clear to the parents of both students, we won’t accept it. We also let the victims’ parents know that they can pursue through HPD by calling the police and pursing it through criminal justice,” Harano said. “That’s up to the parent because they need to make sure students will be there when there’s a court date set, and when they need to speak to police.”

“That’s a tough call because it puts the victim’s family in a bind,” Dr. Gelb said of schools putting the onus on victims’ parents, not the school, to involve police in Class A violent incidents. “The child could get scapegoated, then the teasing starts and the alienation.

“If there’s a handful of kids that are causing the problem, what are they still doing in that setting?” Dr. Gelb added.

A recent change in DOE policy is steering schools away from dismissing disruptive and dangerous students.

“The board took a look at suspensions and there were some written statements about mandatory suspensions,” Harano said. “They basically wanted to give principals, schools, administrators leeway in looking at a situation and determining an appropriate consequence.”

So if they’re not always getting arrested and are getting suspended less often, we asked principals, does the DOE give the middle schools, and high schools for that matter, enough resources to deal with the disruptive kids?

“We’ll always say we need more resources,” Harano said. “Where they come from is always a question. At the middle school level, because of the age of the students, there are limited alternatives that we have as opposed to high schools. That would be one of the things we need to take a look at. What are the alternatives we have at the middle level for students that are disengaged, alienated, having trouble going through the educational process?”

We asked lawmakers what they could do to help.

“I think there was talk at some point looking at the intermediate schools, looking at lowering the student-teacher ratio in intermediate,” Shimabukuro said. “Clearly these statistics show that statewide intermediate school is where the violence is the highest. How can we expect our students to perform well in school, to focus on studies, go to college and all those things if they have to worry about safety on a day-to-day basis?”

Shimabukuro also points out how past budget cuts slashed school security and counselor positions. Where counselors are in place, what their role is should be emphasized, experts say.

“We really need to have effective anger management tools and skills in place,” Dr. Gelb said. “There are safe, effective methods whereby you can release your anger in a way that doesn’t harm anyone else. Just imagine if every child was encouraged to do that if they needed to. You’re not only helping the classroom environment and the teacher, but you could also save the child a potential offender who could end up spending the rest of his life or her life in jail, incarcerated let’s say.”

“Everybody comes to school to learn. Nobody should come fearing or being worried about something that is going to happen to them,” Harano said. “We take that very seriously and do something about it.”

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