Tuesday, January 19, 1999

School rule
change focuses on

Rights groups call for
'zero tolerance' policy on racial
discrimination in
public schools

By Crystal Kua


Civil rights groups called for a "zero tolerance" policy on racial discrimination in Hawaii's public schools this morning, a day before a school board committee will consider broadening the definition of harassment to include acts based on race, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, religion or disability.

The Department of Education proposed administrative rule changes, and a committee is scheduled to discuss amendments to Chapter 19 -- rules governing student misconduct and discipline -- tomorrow.

Although the proposed changes come at a time when the department is examining reports of racial harassment and insensitivity in public schools, the department says that a revision to the definition of harassment is part of a routine, periodic review of rules.

The American Civil Liberties Union said the department is taking a step in the right direction by addressing the definition of harassment, but the public schools could do more to promote racial sensitivity.

"That is appropriate in light of what's been happening in the public schools," ACLU attorney Sandy Ma said last week.

Today, the ACLU and other civil rights groups called upon the school board to end racial discrimination and harassment in the public schools.

They said the board and department should adopt a zero tolerance policy and provide racial tolerance and sensitivity program to train and educate administrators, teachers and students.

"The (school board) must address the problem of racism in Hawaii public schools immediately and effectively before another crisis develops," the groups said in a statement. "Hawaii public school students should not be required to attend schools where their race or ethnicity are attacked, degraded and ridiculed."

They cited recent examples including a Kalaheo High School yearbook portrayal of African Americans and a student wearing a Ku Klux Klan Halloween costume at Castle High School and a federal complaint filed by an Iao School student who was subjected to racial harassment.

The groups endorsing the statement include the ACLU, Afro-American Lawyers Association, the Japanese American Citizens League Hawaii Chapter, the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, Hawaii Women Lawyers and the NAACP.

Harassment is a class B offense, in the school's discipline code, or unlawful conduct punishable by a variety of penalties up to dismissal.

The department's proposal adds a section further defining harassment as making "verbal or non-verbal expressions based on race, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, religion or disability which create an intimidating, hostile or offensive school environment, or interfere with the education of a student, or otherwise adversely affect the educational opportunity of a student."

It calls for expanding the definition of harassment to include bullying. Francine Grudzias, the DOE's systems group director, said the proposed changes were not in response to recent events.

The impetus for the review was legislative action taken last year which gave principals authority to approve suspensions of 10 days or less when a student is found in possession of a dangerous weapon, any knife, drugs or liquor.

Grudzias said whenever a review is done, the schools can also offer changes. The proposed changes in the harassment definition came about because some schools wanted "bullying" to be included as a form of harassment.

Another proposed rule change calls for making possession or use of laser pens or pointers a punishable offense because of reports the device can damage eyes.

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