Thursday, January 21, 1999

School board
committee takes
anti-bias action

It approves a rule change to
expand harassment to include
acts based on race

By Crystal Kua


A school board committee yesterday took a stance against discrimination.

The Student Services Committee approved, for public hearing, a proposed rule change that would broaden the definition of harassment to include acts based on race, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, religion or disability.

"We've got to be proactive. This is a step in that direction. This is a step we need to start taking," said school board member Mike Victorino of Maui, where an eighth-grade African-American student was subjected to racial slurs and harassment at school.

But committee members said they would probably take an extra step on top of the revisions to Chapter 19 rules to spell out their zero tolerance of racial discrimination, as requested by civil-rights groups earlier this week.

"We need to make sure that we have something in place," board member Karen Knudsen said. "And I think with Chapter 19 and with a strongly stated resolution and other action, I think that's far better." Chapter 19 is the Department of Education's administrative rules covering student misconduct and discipline.

In addition to expanding the definition of harassment, the revised rules prohibit students from bringing laser pointers to school.

The department, as part of a periodic review of the rules, is broadening the definition of harassment to discourage discrimination based on race -- which is a punishable offense.

"What we have to ask ourselves is that when this occurs, in so far as the receiver of that intimidation, does it interfere with that student's education. Certainly it does," Tom Yamashita, civil-rights compliance director, told the committee. "If a student finds that offensive, intimidating, it certainly does affect that student's educational opportunities. That's what we're trying to prevent."

The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil-rights groups earlier this week called for a zero tolerance policy against racial discrimination in Hawaii's public schools and for racial tolerance training for administrators, teachers and students.

The groups cited several cases of racial insensitivity at public schools including a federal complaint filed by an Iao School boy who was racially harassed.

The committee was originally scheduled to only discuss the revision and take action on it next month.But at the urging of board Chairman Mitsugi Nakashima for quick action, the committee amended its agenda so that it could approve the revisions and send it to the board for action.

If approved by the board and the governor, the rules would then go out for public hearing.

"I will take this back to Miss Ma and say, 'Hey, this is what you're asking, part of what you're asking. Here, we are taking a pro-active (position),' " Victorino said, referring to ACLU legal director Sandy Ma. Committee Chairwoman Jessica Preece said the committee may take up a resolution on the matter at a future meeting.

Although discussion at times focused on the cultural differences in Hawaii as playing a role in discrimination, board members said intolerance is not acceptable.

"I think it behooves all of us to understand that we cannot accept, 'That's the way it was or that's the way it is,' because that's the absolute wrong answer in anything we do today," Victorino said.

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