The case of a man accused of sexually molesting a girl and showing a pornographic video to another while they were at sleepovers at his home is sparking spirited debate about just how far Hawaii’s private schools can go to penalize a child for the alleged sins of a parent.
The debate is resonating in a state where children attend private schools at a much greater rate than the national average.
And the controversy is pitting the interests of two sides against one another.
On one side is a father who disputes the allegations and wasn’t charged in either case — he was arrested in the video case last year — and a son who by all accounts is a good kid.
On the other are parents who shudder at the thought of an alleged child molester coming into contact with their children on campus.
Caught in the middle is Punahou School, where the man’s 6-year-old son attends first grade.
The institution last month decided that the fallout from the case was causing so much disruption that the boy no longer could be a student there. It linked the decision to a safety and well-being matter for its students and the greater school community.
“The faculty and administration have attended to the issue of allegations against the parent since the fall,” Punahou said in a statement to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “But in recent weeks, the level of disruption for students, faculty and families had increased dramatically and significantly interfered with the functioning of the school community. The school then made the difficult decision to inform the family that their child could no longer attend Punahou.”
That decision prompted the boy’s mother to file a lawsuit, and the court on Jan. 31 ordered Punahou to temporarily take him back for the current school year while the merits of the litigation are considered.
It’s not clear on what grounds the woman sued Punahou President James Scott and Junior School Principal Paris Priore-Kim, who oversees the lower grades, because the court allowed her lawyer, Eric Seitz, to file the complaint and other documents under seal.
One media attorney says the court’s decision to seal the records appears to violate Hawaii Supreme Court rulings.
Seitz declined comment on the lawsuit but provided a statement to the Star-Advertiser:
“My client vehemently denies all of the allegations that have been made against him,” Seitz wrote. “He has voluntarily submitted to two polygraph tests, both of which he passed. Neither the Honolulu Police Department nor Child Protective Services has charged my client with misconduct, and there is no present investigation.”
On behalf of the family, Seitz added, he is taking “vigorous action” to stop anonymous reports about his client.
He did not elaborate on the reports, but the case has created a buzz among Punahou parents and others, including in social media posts.
Seitz’s statement concluded: “The family appreciates the efforts taken by Punahou School to minimize the impact upon their child and in that regard the father has agreed to separate himself from the school until this matter is resolved.”
Parents contacted by the Star-Advertiser declined to speak on the record, fearing retribution.
But one parent who asked not to be named touched on the motivation behind their actions.
“When there is even a potential or perceived threat to our children’s safety, it is our job as parents and as a community to protect them,” the parent said. “We just need our children to be in a safe environment at school.”
As part of the court order, Punahou noted in its statement, “the student’s father will not enter the campus or other premises of the school, may not have other children who are Punahou students visit his home and may not have any contact with any Punahou student.”
Parents had raised concerns about contact away from the school because of allegations from the two cases in which police reports were filed last year.
In both cases, the girls, who were friends of the suspect’s older son, were at sleepovers at his home when the alleged offenses happened, according to the police reports.
The parental concerns over the man’s June 2017 arrest on suspicion of promoting pornography to a minor intensified after the Star- Advertiser published a story about the criminal case last month, noting that prosecutors declined to charge him.
Prosecutors told the newspaper that the way Hawaii law is written contributed to their decision to not prosecute that case and several previous ones that touched on allegations of promoting pornography to a minor. State legislators currently are considering measures to amend the law.
The January story on the man’s troubles with the law also mentioned the 2017 police complaint independently filed by a Nevada couple who alleged that their daughter was sexually molested multiple times by him about two years earlier when the family lived in Hawaii.
The suspect was not arrested or charged in that case. When a Honolulu detective went to Nevada to observe a forensics interview of the girl, the child did not mention the alleged abuse, according to police records.
Although the newspaper refrained from identifying the suspect in its January story because he was not charged in either case, his name already is known among people in the Punahou community, along with some parents at The Early School, a private preschool that the man’s two sons attended.
Even though at least one Facebook post named the man, the Star-Advertiser still is not naming him for the same reason — the lack of charges — and because the newspaper does not want to indirectly identify his sons.
Even before Punahou took action, The Early School responded last year to parental concerns over the father’s troubles with the law.
The preschool in June learned of the man’s arrest and conducted an investigation. The girl who was the alleged victim had been a classmate of the man’s older son at The Early School.
The institution eventually notified parents in a letter that its board took “decisive action to trespass the parent and to dis-enroll the family” from the preschool.
“The safety and care for your children is our utmost priority,” Director Frances Dote and board President Kit Millan wrote.
The man’s second, younger son was enrolled in The Early School at the time.
Frank O’Brien, the school’s attorney, told the newspaper the board’s actions, based on information available at the time, were the most reasonable to protect the rights of the child, parents and people directly involved in the matter.
Edward Dragan, a national education expert from New Jersey, said private schools, unlike public ones, do not have to accept or keep any students, though they have to abide by contracts with parents.
“Ultimately, the private school can say they are not comfortable having the student there because of the concerns raised by parents about his father,” Dragan wrote in an email to the Star-Advertiser.