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Alleged teacher abuse jolts charter school community

The signs on the front gate proudly pronounce “Bully Free Zone.”

From its earliest beginnings, the Pahoa-based charter school Hawaii Academy of Arts and Sciences was supposed to be, among other things, a safe harbor for students and their parents seeking an alternative to the teasing and violence they’d experienced at other public schools.

But now, a teacher at HAAS has been accused of hitting and verbally abusing numerous fourth-grade students in her class, and parents say the school’s administrators have done little to inform them about the complaints or to prevent the teacher from having further contact with their children.

Thursday night, angry parents, faculty and staff members convened at a regularly scheduled meeting of the school’s Governing Board to vent their frustration over a situation that they said has yet to be resolved to their satisfaction since the first allegation was made about 100 days ago.

“It’s time for you to answer our questions,” said Debra Isabel, a teacher at the school who claims that her 9-year-old son, who has special needs, was physically and verbally abused by his teacher, Shannon K. Smith.

“I have remained silent and entrusted HAAS to conduct a fair investigation while I paid close attention to the details as it unfolded.”

Multiple parents stood up and recounted episodes in which they said their children were called “stupid,” told to “shut up,” or had their ears flicked by Smith. In one instance, a parent claimed, a child had his mouth duct-taped to prevent him from “whining.”

“My 10-year-old was told, ‘Keep your hands under you, or I’ll cut them off,’” said parent Dan Biegler.

Board members told meeting attendees that they had largely been wrapped up in negotiations with the Hawaii State Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers at the school, since the board was first notified of the allegations.

“You have to understand, we have limited moves we can make,” explained board Vice Chairman Michael Dodge.

Dodge told attendees that an agreement had been reached which would keep Smith on administrative paid leave until the end of the school year in July, at which time she would no longer be an employee of the school. Smith was to remain off campus during that time.

However, parents told the board Thursday night that Smith was present at the school’s May 2 Ho‘olaulea, interacting with and touching some students. Parents claimed that administrators had been notified of Smith’s presence at the time, but nothing was done to remove her from campus.

They also claimed that the lack of information provided to parents during the entire period had been “appalling.”

“We were told nothing,” said father David Marquis, who claimed that his child had also been abused by Smith. “We received three letters telling us the teacher was being removed and who her replacement was, but they said nothing about why.”

Parents also expressed dissatisfaction over the fact that teaching assistants who were allegedly present during instances of abuse were allowed to remain in the classroom.

In a phone interview Friday morning, Principal Steve Hirakami explained that school boards often feel hamstrung when dealing with personnel issues, saying that confidentiality is an important part of maintaining some control over the outcome.

“I’m about how to protect the kids,” he said. “The parents and families are saying ‘We will stop at nothing to keep her from teaching again, anywhere.’ They’re after her license, they don’t want her to teach on the mainland or anywhere else. … The thing is, this bureaucratic mess in Hawaii, it’s the most unionized state in the nation. They have no idea how hard it is to remove a teacher due to the HSTA and its strong political ties. They don’t know how cumbersome it is to work within the system.

“To protect the whole school, you’ve gotta follow a whole lot of legal advice,” Hirakami said. “And if you get into trouble they come after your houses and your cars and your first born. They (the parents) don’t have an appreciation for how hard it is.”

Hirakami said that the board intends to meet Tuesday with Smith, and is seeking to nullify her separation agreement as a result of her alleged failure to stay away from the campus. If that happens, the teacher would likely be put on leave without pay until the end of the year. That could also nullify some confidentiality requirements, he said, which might allow the school to be more forthcoming with details about its investigation and handling of the case.

He added that, despite the harsh feelings in the community, he foresees that the school will overcome this episode and go on to become stronger and better equipped to deal with similar instances in the future.

“On the most part, this is a great school, it’s a safe school,” he said.

As Thursday evening’s meeting drew to a close, 17-year-old student board member Austin Brown stood up and succinctly summed up what many in the crowd appeared to feel, as evidenced by the loud round of applause following his impassioned plea.

“I’d be upset too … if my child was in an abusive situation, and I know everyone is looking for answers. But it’s all about the law the board is required to follow,” he said.

“Coming here from the mainland … I was at schools where people would get stabbed, sometimes twice a week. This is the only school where I’ve felt completely safe. … One bad apple spoils the whole bunch. The rest of HAAS is not like that. … We don’t want to give HAAS a bad name.”

Meanwhile, as the school continues to pursue firing Smith, Hawaii County Prosecutor Mitch Roth said Friday afternoon that his office is currently looking into the allegations against the teacher as a result of a police report filed by Isabel in January.

“It’s an active investigation and we can’t comment on the facts at this point,” Roth said.

Attempts to contact Smith for comment on this story were unsuccessful as of presstime Friday.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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