Sunday, December 7, 2003

Board defends
admission ruling

Activists are unhappy with
Kamehameha's settlement
in favor of a non-Hawaiian boy

With one legal challenge to its admissions policy still alive, Kamehameha Schools' officials insist an agreement allowing a non-Hawaiian boy to attend the exclusive private school does nothing to undermine its mission to educate Hawaiian children.

"Kamehameha Schools will vigorously defend its admissions policy," Kamehameha attorney Crystal Rose said.

While attorneys continue to defend the admissions policy in one lawsuit, the school's board of trustees has had to defend its decision last month to settle a second challenge by letting a 12-year-old non-Hawaiian boy attend Kamehameha in exchange for dropping his federal lawsuit.

Brayden Mohica-Cummings had been attending the school -- without incident, according to his mother -- under court order since August while his case was pending. One of his attorneys, Eric Grant, points to his acceptance within the school community as proof that "when non-Hawaiians attend Kamehameha Schools, the world doesn't end."

That view doesn't sit well with many native Hawaiians, some of whom are still simmering over Kamehameha's acceptance last year of a non-Hawaiian boy to its Maui campus under a policy that allows such action when there aren't enough qualified applicants of Hawaiian ancestry.

Many see both admissions as an insult to the legacy of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, whose will in 1883 gave everything she had for the education of Hawaii's children because in her lifetime, she saw the native population dwindle from 124,000 to 42,000.

"What world does he live in?" activist Wayne Panoke said angrily when told of Grant's comment. "The world we live in does not allow non-Hawaiians to attend Kamehameha."

That decision remains in the hands of the federal court system.

Mohica-Cummings' lawsuit was one of two filed this year challenging Kamehameha's admissions policy. His settlement leaves just the one legal challenge that was filed on behalf of an unidentified non-Hawaiian boy who contends Kamehameha's rejection of his admission based on race is unconstitutional.

In that lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Alan Kay ruled Nov. 17 that Kamehameha's admissions policy is legal and justified because it seeks to remedy socio-economic and educational disadvantages suffered by Hawaiians as a result of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.

Attorneys plan an appeal, which would leave the issue of the policy's legality to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

The appellate court has sided with previous lower court rulings favoring native Hawaiians, most recently in September when it upheld dismissals of two separate lawsuits that challenged programs offered by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. The lower courts ruled that plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the legality of the programs.

In approving the Mohica-Cummings settlement last week, U.S. District Judge David Ezra also said he felt certain Hawaiians-only preferences were constitutional, noting that he himself had issued such rulings in other cases.

"There are unique circumstances existing here that exist nowhere else," he said.

The "John Doe" case differs slightly from the Mohica-Cummings case because that boy never was admitted to the school. Mohica-Cummings and his mother sued after his admission was rescinded because he was unable to prove his Hawaiian ancestry. The school had said Santos misrepresented the boy's ethnic heritage by claiming he was part-Hawaiian.

In both cases, Kamehameha attorneys had put forth the same argument in defense of its admissions policy -- the argument that Kay agreed with in his November ruling.

Despite already having Kay's ruling in their favor, native Hawaiians aren't ready to declare victory.

"We're in a land that is governed by American law," Panoke said. "American law was never created to protect indigenous people, so no matter which way we go ... it's never going to be in our favor."

About 4,900 students attend Kamehameha's three campuses that are partly funded by a trust now worth $5.5 billion. Admissions are highly prized, both for the quality of education and the low cost compared to other private schools.


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