Lawsuit alleges teacher assault


By JOHN BURNETT

Tribune-Herald staff writer

The father of a former Pahoa High and Intermediate School student has filed suit, claiming that a teacher struck his son during class two years ago and that school officials failed to notify him about the incident.

The suit, which seeks unspecified damages, was filed Friday in Hilo Circuit Court by Hilo attorneys Gary Zamber and Brooks Bancroft. The filing, on behalf of the father, names the state, the Department of Education, PHIS Principal Darlene Bee, then-Vice Principal Elna Gomes, and the teacher, Margaret Arcaina. The suit accuses Arcaina of assault and battery, the DOE of negligence, and all defendants of intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The family is also seeking damages for loss of consortium between the father and the son, and states that the boy was sent to live with a relative on the mainland “so that he could attend school that offered a safe, supportive learning environment.”

Zamber said on Monday that the father is “looking to receive some sort of compensation and some sort of apology from the teacher and the school, or the government on behalf of the school.”

“They failed to notify him and, in fact, when he was told he’d be able to come in they changed that at the last minute,” Zamber said.

The suit alleges that during a social studies class on Sept. 23, 2011, Arcaina struck the boy, then a seventh-grader, “in the head/face area while holding a pen. The filing claims that the teacher struck the boy without justification and that the boy “did not threaten Arcaina or anyone else in the class prior to being struck by Arcaina” and didn’t “exhibit any violence or other aggressive behavior.”

According to the suit, the boy “suffered bodily injury, including a handprint and observable redness and swelling of the affected areas” and “a noticeable impression … caused by the pen that Arcaina was holding at the time.”

The lawsuit states that a witness — an adult, according to Zamber — took the boy to a counselor, and that the counselor took him to Gomes’ office instead of to the health room for treatment. The boy allegedly asked the counselor if he could call his father to tell him what happened and the counselor, according to the filing, told the boy he could, but that Gomes then told the boy that he couldn’t speak to his father until she had contacted him to discuss the incident.

The suit states that the boy was then taken to the health room where he was given an ice pack and “after being shuffled around by PHIS administrators” was told to return to the class. It also states that the father went to the campus on the date of the incident and although he “saw the principal and the health aide, neither of them reported to him what had occurred.” The filing further alleges that Arcaina later telephoned the father “to discuss issues regarding (the boy’s) school performance, but Arcaina failed to reveal that she had struck” the boy.

“The only way he found out is that someone else, who had witnessed it, ended up telling him. That’s one heck of a way to find out about this thing,” Zamber said. According to the suit, the boy mentioned the incident but with “scant details” that didn’t convey the severity of the situation.

The father said Monday afternoon that the adult who had taken his son to the health room had asked him about a month later why he didn’t go to the principal or the teacher about the incident. He replied that he didn’t know and hadn’t been told.

“They put ice on my boy’s head and they never called me,” he said.

The father said Arcaina later apologized to him but that school administrators tried to “make my son look like a bad kid and it’s not true.” The suit said the school “targeted/blamed” the boy “to avoid discipline or other adverse action.”

“It’s so frustrating. He was hurt more than anything,” the father said. He said that a school complex administrator later promised that his son could be home-schooled with a tutor, but didn’t follow through on the promise. He pulled the boy from the school at the end of the 2011-12 school year, he said.

The father said he went to the police but no charges were filed. Zamber said he believes the case is still being investigated.

He said he made the decision to send his son to the mainland “because (the boy) doesn’t feel safe” at Pahoa Intermediate. He said the young man is doing well on the mainland but the situation is tough on the family.

“It’s difficult, because this is where I was born and raised. This is where my family is. His family, all his classmates, is here,” the man said.

The suit claims that the DOE “failed to conduct a sufficient administrative investigation” and Zamber said his client sued only after exhausting his other options.

“He contacted everyone he could during the entire process — the school, administrators at the Department of Education — and no one would squarely address the situation,” he said. “I think this goes to a deeper concern about violence in the schools, and in this situation it was perpetuated by a teacher in a school that has, at least publicly, stated that they’re working to really address that kind of behavior. And here they have a teacher who is modeling that kind of behavior.”

Neither Bee nor Gomes, who is now principal at Keaau Intermediate, returned a phone call seeking comment by press time Monday. The Tribune-Herald doesn’t have a phone number for Arcaina, who is not currently working at the school. And DOE spokesman Alex Da Silva said the department has not been served with the lawsuit and couldn’t comment.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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