State lawmakers are considering legislation that would make it a crime to harass or intimidate school officials following threats and angry remarks made to education officials about Covid-19 protocols in schools.
“Passing this bill would help address the growing problem of harassment and threats that our principals and staff face,” Acting Department of Education Superintendent Keith Hayashi said during of a conference. recent legislative hearing.
In a written testimony in support of House Bill 2125which was requested by the DOE and included in a package of bills introduced by the governor, the department explained that the behavior included “constant harassment, name-calling, and harassment of school officials with persistent phone calls “.
“The polarization of society and the blatant disrespect towards our government institutions that is fostered by social media has encouraged some people to harass and intimidate school officials with demeaning swear words and threats to their personal safety as well than job security when they have problems with school. “, wrote the DOE.
The bill was recently passed with amendments by the House Education Committee and is then heading to the House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee. There is also a related Senate bill.
While there are DOE policies that address unruly conduct by students against staff, this legislation is directed at adults – specifically, parents who express frustration with school administrators because they are upset with Covid related procedures.
A wave of hostility towards school administrators, teachers and elected school boards has swept across the United States during the pandemic, with schools becoming a battleground over differing views regarding Covid safety measures.
The National Association of School Boards asked the Biden administration last September to address rising incivility in school boards across the country, saying public schools and their leaders “are under immediate threat.”
In Hawaii, wearing a mask in public schools remains mandatory – except during mealtimes – while DOE and State Department of Health guidance describes quarantine restrictions when students are considered a close contact of a positive person.
There is no Covid vaccination requirement for eligible students (those aged 5 and over), although unvaccinated students are subject to stricter testing and quarantine rules before returning to school.
Six of the 15 complex area superintendents in Hawaii have pledged their support for the bill, and at least eight DOE directors have signed written testimony in support.
Kyle Shimabukuro, principal of Mililani Mauka Elementary School, testified that he dealt with “angry and belligerent people about once a month”.
While he said the “active listening and empathy” on his part helped him defuse many situations, there are always “one or two incidents a year where the person is unreasonably aggressive and doesn’t back down. “.
“The pandemic has made these types of situations even worse,” Shimabukuro wrote, recounting an exchange with a parent upset that his child was quarantined for five days due to being an unvaccinated close contact with someone. tested positive for Covid.
DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said she did not have an exact count of cases or threats made against school officials in the current school year.
“Because we have over 40,000 employees, we don’t track that consistently,” Kalani said. “I only have anecdotal examples.”
Hawaii News Now reported for the first time about a series of harassing letters and death threats beginning in June 2020 against Katherine Balatico, the principal of Stevenson Middle School who is currently on workers’ compensation leave in response to the threats.
Although the threats against Balatico did not refer specifically to school Covid protocols, she told Civil Beat that she believed “any type of harassment, any type of terrorist threat (against school officers) must be raised to the level of a crime”.
A new misdemeanor for harassment against an education official – which would include any school administrator, counselor, specialist, teacher or volunteer in a school program – would be dealt with more harshly than what is known as a “petty misdemeanor”.
“Mitsenses generally carry up to a year in prison and a fine of up to $2,000,” said Gary Yamashiroya, special assistant to the Hawaii attorney general.
This bill also recognizes that principals and other administrators and staff are often the recipients of threatening phone calls or letters. A spokesperson for the Hawaii State Teachers Association said the group was unaware of any such behavior directed at teachers in recent years.
The Hawaii Government Employees Association, the union that represents managers and deputy managers, supports the bill.
“Each school year, we are informed by our members of threats that are directly directed at them or that they have witnessed in the course of their employment and in the course of their duties and responsibilities,” HGEA Executive Director Randy wrote. Perreira, in his testimony.
Joy Bulosan, field services manager for the HGEA, said in an interview that such threats still existed before the Covid pandemic, with parents expressing anger at such things as the extent of services a child receives or the leadership style of a director.
“Everything is so divided now,” Bulosan said, adding that principals would even respond to angry pleas from parents about unclear or changing directions in a pandemic. In many cases, school leaders have had to move forward without clear direction from higher levels of administration.
During the recent House Education Committee hearing, Bulosan recounted how an office assistant at a windward school picked up the phone and received a death threat from an individual who said that would come onto campus and hurt the office staff.
Bulosan later said the threat stemmed from a social media post on the Instagram account of Reports from Hawaii at the end of last month, alleging that King Intermediate “separates students if they are not vaccinated”.
Although King Intermediate’s principal declined to comment on the incident, Bulosan said school administrators contacted the Honolulu Police Department, which spent about an hour at the school monitoring for unusual activity. .
HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu said Monday the incident was classified as harassment and there were no arrests.
Despite the threats, some House lawmakers are wary of the criminal justice implications of such a bill.
Representative Sonny Ganaden, a member of the House Education Committee and a public defender by profession, questions whether increased criminalization is a way to stem such behavior. Although he voted to pass the bill out of commission, with reservations, he wonders if it could lead to “unfair lawsuits” in low-income or native Hawaiian communities.
“It’s in a gray area of what the legislature is trying to accomplish, which prevents these incidents from happening at all,” Ganaden said.
“Do we need to change criminal law or DOE policy, or do we need to better educate parents to speak civilly to teachers about their students and their students’ health?” he said. “If the end goal is to reduce threats against staff, when is increasing penalties the way to do that or should we be talking about having a more civil society?”