Student Walkout Planned at Kea‘au High School to Combat Sexual Assault and ‘Culture on Campus’
May 17, 2022, 6:00 PM HST
* Updated May 18, 10:22 AM
A pair of students at Kea‘au High School are organizing a walkout this week as a way to demonstrate against sexual assault that they say is too prevalent on campus.
Madelyn Smith, a sophomore at the school and one of the organizers of the event, said complaints of inappropriate behavior aren’t being heard by the school’s administration, and the walkout is a way to get their voices heard.
“They can’t silence this anymore,” Smith told Big Island Now on Tuesday.
The walkout is planned for Thursday afternoon, May 19. Students are expected to leave school early in unison.
Smith said some students feel the inappropriate behavior and lack of administrative action has gone on to such a degree this school year that a culture of acceptance has settled over the campus. Some of the alleged instances are rumors, but she said some students reported incidents that involved them, but nothing has been done.
Much of the inappropriate behavior occurs in the school bathrooms, where cameras aren’t allowed, Smith said.
“Hearing about all these things, it’s just like the culture on campus,” she said. “I think a lot of people are done with it.”
While the planned walkout is meant to raise awareness about sexual assault in general, one specific incident acted as a catapult for the effort, Smith said.
On April 23, a former student circulated a pair of letters to school staff and administration and the media, as well as online, in which the former student, since graduated, alleges she was coerced by a teacher still employed at the school into an improper sexual relationship about 17 years ago while she was a student there.
The alleged victim and letter writer revealed her name, but it is being withheld from this story. The name of the alleged perpetrator is also being withheld as no charges have been filed.
In a four-page letter originally dated Feb. 4, 2017, the victim chronicles in detail how the teacher allegedly groomed her as victim.
“He started flirting with me and asking questions with sexual undertones like, ‘What do you wash first when you get in the shower?'” the letter reads. “There would be other students around, mostly girls. He would then play it off as a teaching moment/joke. … He would rush us to answer and we hurriedly said things like ‘Our body, then our hair’.
“This is just one of the examples that (he) uses to edge his way into your comfort zone, to get you to think that it’s OK to talk with him about these things.”
Other methods the teacher allegedly employed to earn the female students’ trust were to let them drive his vehicle to get lunch, have them help him grade papers, assign special tasks and “hang out” with him to make it seem normal to spend time with him alone.
“He gave you a little responsibility and you felt special,” she wrote.
The former student goes on to claim that the teacher then initiated sexual intercourse with her, and intimidated her afterward so she wouldn’t inform anyone.
“He started this out by inducing fear,” she wrote. “Fear about what my family would think if I told them. That they would disown me and throw me out. That all my friends wouldn’t want to be around me. … When I wanted to stop, he would further talk down to me and make me feel worthless. Once I even remember him ‘joking’ about me not telling anyone about us because ‘people disappear on an island all the time.'”
The former student wrote and circulated the letter in 2017, and then again on April 23, with a second letter explaining that she was doing so because she was shocked that the teacher was still employed at the school.
“Whether or not charges can be made because these events happened so long ago does not matter to me,” she wrote in the second letter. “I do not want anyone else to go through what I have gone through.”
The state Department of Education on Tuesday confirmed it received the student’s original 2017 complaint and investigated the matter at the time, and it found no proof of wrongdoing.
“The department is aware of the resurfaced complaint from the former student,” DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani told Big Island Now. “The issue was originally brought to the attention of the department in 2017-18. At that time, the department did investigate the allegations, and subsequently concluded its investigation.”
Kea‘au High School Principal Dean Cevallos sent a letter home to parents on May 4 apprising them of the situation and “to address inaccurate allegations involving one of our employees.”
In the letter, which details the steps the school took investigating the claim in 2017, Cevallos notifies parents that the teacher in question has been placed on administrative leave for his own safety “due to the backlash from these inaccurate claims resurfacing.”
“We are working on a plan to transition this teacher back to campus,” the principal wrote.
The letter begins by saying the department has a policy of not disclosing the details of personnel matters, but the school needed to provide accurate information to parents and the community given the wide circulation of the accuser’s claims. It said that “the safety and well-being of our students is a top priority at Kea‘au High.”
“Five years ago a former student who graduated in 2005 made serious claims against one of our teachers, alleging that inappropriate sexual relations occurred between the student and teacher,” the letter states. “At that time, the department’s Civil Rights Compliance Branch immediately conducted an investigation of the claims and law enforcement was notified. I was principal at the time these initial claims were made and was interviewed as part of the department’s investigation at the time.
“After conducting fact finding and interviewing the complainant, defendant and witnesses, the department’s investigation concluded that there was insufficient information to substantiate the former student’s claims, and the case was subsequently closed. Multiple attempts were made to notify the complainant of the outcome at the time.
“As a longtime member of this community, I care deeply about our students, staff and their families and would never jeopardize safety. I am hopeful that we can come together as a community to support one another moving forward.”
The victim did not return two voicemail messages from Big Island Now seeking to discuss the matter.
Smith said that she was aware of the letter sent to parents, but the matter isn’t being discussed at the school with students, which she lends to the air of tolerance. While the walkout was spurred from the resurfaced complaint, the effort is meant to stand up to sexual assault in all cases, not just the one.
“We want to show that we are against sexual assault and that we support victims, especially those in our community,” another student organizer, Crislin Stamsos, wrote to Big Island Now in an email. “Our mission is to make it feel comfortable for victims to come out and share their stories.”