School task force seeks solutions to harassment
Underreporting and a cumbersome system add to the problem
For "Shane," a transgendered high school sophomore, life on campus has been a school of hard knocks.
At a previous Oahu school, he was taunted with every gay slang term there is and was even physically assaulted by his own friends when they realized that their girlfriend actually wanted to live her life as a male.
"Being queer in high school here is really hard. It makes you scared, like you can't even walk down the hall without being thrown against a locker," said the 15-year-old student.
Yet through a combination of fear and shame, Shane has left the harassment largely unreported.
That is an all-too-common situation, according to members of a task force appointed by the Department of Education, who say that bullying and harassment of students perceived as "different" remains a stubborn problem in Hawaii's public schools.
The problem festers due to the timidity of victims, inaction by school officials and a dysfunctional system for reporting such incidents and disciplining students, members of the Safe Schools Community Advisory Committee told the Board of Education yesterday.
"Students tell me that nothing gets done about it, and they are sick and tired of it," said Robin Nussbaum, a committee member and Hawaii program coordinator of Queers for Justice.
The committee, a collection of educators, social workers, religious leaders and others, was appointed last year by Superintendent Pat Hamamoto to assess harassment in schools and eventually offer recommendations.
Members said no reliable statewide harassment statistics exist due to underreporting. However, they said anecdotal evidence and interviews with students indicate that harassment over ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, mental and physically disabilities, and a range of other triggers remains common.
"Anecdotally, we're seeing it across age groups, from elementary to high school and beyond," said Nancy Kern, an HIV prevention specialist with the Department of Health.
School staff sometimes worsen things by not taking action against perpetrators, task force members said.
They blamed a cumbersome and confusing system of paperwork for discouraging already-busy teachers and principals from filing harassment reports. Still other staff simply ignore the harassment, they said.
Either way, students get caught in a vicious circle in which reporting bullies seems a waste of time.
"Right now, there is nothing to demonstrate to students that there is anyone out there who will support them," Kern said.
BOE member Mary Cochran said she worries that many schools set to lose money next year under a new system of distributing school funding might ax nonteaching positions such as school counselors, who are often left to deal with harassment issues.
Nussbaum said two-thirds to three-quarters of the homosexual students she has spoken to admit hearing anti-gay remarks from students. Less often, they hear the same from teachers.
This can range from casual use of now-common phrases like "that's so gay" to more pointed attacks.
The task force is still working on final recommendations, but members said they are likely to include measures to encourage reporting of harassment, a better system of data collection and more robust sensitivity training for both teachers and school staff.
Nussbaum said students currently are given handouts at the beginning of the school year, but they are not highlighted by school staff and are quickly forgotten.
"More effort needs to be made to make sure they really absorb it," she said.
The committee's final report is expected out within a year, said Jean Nakasato, of the DOE's Student Support Section, who is coordinating the task force. But she said the task force might offer some recommendations to the DOE even sooner.
Kern said students who suffer from some form of harassment are more prone to drop out, turn to drugs, contract HIV and other negative outcomes.
"It needs to be made really clear to kids and teachers that this is no longer acceptable," Kern said.