POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 19, 2012
About 20 Kealakehe High students received suspensions of varying lengths for their roles in fights on the Hawaii island campus that prompted school officials to cancel classes Dec. 7.
Kealakehe Principal Wilfred Murakami said the disciplinary actions ranged from in-school suspensions to long-term placements in alternative learning programs.
Murakami also said he met with a few Marshallese parents Friday to begin the work of figuring out how to address the root of the fighting — what the Department of Education described in a news release as tensions "between local, Micronesian and Marshallese cultures and lifestyles."
Murakami has said Marshallese students were the target of ongoing bullying and taunts from other students prior to the fighting.
The meeting with Marshallese parents was designed as a first step toward creating stronger ties with parents and addressing ongoing bullying, Murakami said.
He said he is planning to hold a community meeting in January to discuss racial tensions, and will also beef up anti-bullying initiatives.
Kealakehe High, with an enrollment of 1,470, canceled school Dec. 7 after two days of fighting on the campus.
The problems culminated Dec. 6 with a melee that involved about 30 students and resulted in eight being arrested.
Those arrested — seven males and one female — were charged with disorderly conduct and released.
Murakami said tensions were rising on campus but were exacerbated by social media.
"You had a few kids who had an agenda against a certain group of kids," he said.
At the parent meeting, he said, parents shared their feelings about "how the Marshallese community is trying to deal with adversity that has been going on a long time."
He added, "They don't want to have any kind of trouble."
Clady Bohanny, whose son was among those arrested, said she believes the fighting was a wake-up call. She also said the school appears to realize the severity of the situation.
Her son, a 10th-grader, received a short suspension for his role in the fighting.
"I can tell by the way the principal is talking, he's going to be … (making) progress."
Bohanny said her son endured bullying and name-calling because he is Marshallese.
She said that she knew about the bullying but "didn't think anything of it."
"I was ignoring it and pretending it was nothing," she said.
Bohanny and others in the Marshallese community said that even in the wake of the fighting, it's difficult for them to make waves and call publicly for change.
Jonithen Jackson, 56, a deacon at United Church of Christ, said many Marshallese parents have come to him with concerns about bullying.
"I said we've got to wait a bit," he said. "If we try to stop that problem, it's very hard."
In the wake of the Kealakehe incident, Jackson sat down with a group of young Marshallese students to call for calm.
He emphasized that cultural misunderstandings are bound to happen because people have different cultural norms and ways of seeing the world.
He also told the young people that they must stay in school.
Jackson conceded that's easier said than done.
The students told him about the bullying they regularly experience. Some students said they had even heard racial slurs coming from teachers.
"They said by some security (guards), some teachers, they are hated," he said.
But Jackson said there is now an opportunity for the community to come together, to learn more about each other and to make peace.
"We've got to do something," he said.