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‘I Hope They Get What We’re Trying to do.’ More than 100 Walk Out of KHS to Protest Sexual Assault ‘Culture’

By Tom Hasslinger
May 19, 2022, 5:30 PM HST
* Updated May 19, 5:33 PM
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Dayton Velaseo-Kahele, a sophomore at KHS, holds a sign as part of Thursday’s walk-out demonstration against sexual violence. PC: Tom Hasslinger/Big Island Now

More than 100 students at Kea‘au High School walked out of class Thursday afternoon before the end of the school day as a demonstration against sexual assault that they say is too prevalent on campus.

The students waved signs and chanted in unison calling for an end to “rape culture” as they paraded around the campus for roughly one hour. Some motorists honked and yelled words of encouragement at the procession of kids, while some parents, school alumni and other community members watched from nearby streets.

“I hope the admin see us and hears us and decides that we need changes at our school,” Madelyn Smith, a sophomore at the school and one of the organizers of the event, said after the rally concluded. “We need better counseling. We need a better approach to sexual assault victims and survivors when they come out with their stories. And overall, we need to end victim-blaming and rape culture at our school.”

Smith and classmate Crislin Stamsos organized the walk-out to draw attention to what they say are complaints of inappropriate behavior on campus that aren’t being handled properly.

“I hope a conversation gets sparked instead of just a lecture at us,” Stamsos said. “And I hope we can talk about it and have the students informed.”

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While the walkout was meant to raise awareness about sexual assault in general, one specific incident acted as a catapult for the effort.

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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 15 years ago while she was a student there.

The state Department of Education and KHS principal said that they investigated the alleged behavior when it was first brought to their attention back in 2017, and found no proof of wrongdoing.

The alleged victim, who hasn’t returned messages left by Big Island Now, recirculated the four-page letter last month that detailed the alleged abuse and drew attention to the matter online.

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KHS Principal Dean Cevallos told Big Island Now on Thursday afternoon that the claims made by the students are untrue.

He said all complaints of inappropriate behavior or sexual assault of any kind are handled accordingly, and his staff hasn’t received very many of them during his tenure. Any notion of a sexual-assault culture on campus being allowed is wildly unfounded. 

“If there is something that has been brought to us by a student, yes, we follow up on it,” he said. “We have not had it happen a lot at all.”

He noted that the idea of such a culture wasn’t even heard of until the alleged victim’s complaint was posted on social media recently. He pointed out that incidents occurring in bathrooms, which some students said is where activities take place, were never brought to their attention as a spot where anything of the like occurs.

When the complaint was brought to the school originally in 2017, the victim wasn’t a student at the time, but an adult and the DOE didn’t, as such, have to investigate it because it was not brought forward by a student. But the DOE still did and found nothing, Cevallos pointed out. The victim still has legal recourse should she choose to pursue the matter in the courts, but has not chosen to do so, he said.

“They should be commended,” he said about the DOE taking up the complaint when it wasn’t required to given the set of circumstances. “It was above and beyond what they should have done, yet they’re being chastised for it.”

Cevallos, who sent a letter home to parents on May 4 informing them of the situation and “to address inaccurate allegations involving one of our employees,” told Big Island Now that he thinks this particular issue has gained so much attention because of the avenue through which it was aired – social media.

“Because it was done through social media the kids became judge, jury, and basically, they didn’t like the answer they got (that the investigation turned up nothing incriminating). “I think that’s the root cause.”

The alleged victim’s name is being withheld from the story. The teacher’s name is also being withheld. The teacher was placed on administrative leave after receiving threats after the allegation came up, but has since returned to his post.

“It’s been great,” Cevallos said about how the teacher’s return has been received inside the school.

The walk-out lasted around 45 minutes. It began with a rally in the courtyard area of the school, where quick speeches were given, and then the students walked in parade-form two laps around the campus, ending where the main entrance driveway is.

Dayton Velaseo-Kahele, a sophomore, and Raenitta Reaune, a freshman, took part in it. They said they did so because the problem they are trying to address is real.

“They’re pretty much telling us to be quiet and stop talking about it when there are girls, and even boys, that are trying to protect other students,” Reaune said, adding she feels comfortable at the school because she has good friends and feels supported. “We came out here to make sure (the alleged victim) gets justice. I hope they understand. I hope they get what we’re trying to do.”

“Most of the students here, we don’t feel safe,” added Velaseo-Kahele.

A classmate of the alleged victim, Hokunani Faisao, a 2007 graduate, watched the demonstration from across the street. She said she believes her former classmate’s account, that she even saw the teacher in question act inappropriately around students, and that she’s proud of the current crop of students for taking action. 

“I’m so proud of these students for speaking up and not being afraid,” she said. “‘Break the silence, stop the violence.’ That’s the message that they were yelling out … We need to start listening to these kids because they’re not just going to come forward and say anything.”

Cevallos, who’s been at the school 11 years and hasn’t seen or heard of anything of this magnitude in that time, said he believes if it really were a culture issue at the school of roughly 1,100 students, it would have come up long before now.

“If that was truly the culture, something would have come out of this way before,” he said. “We don’t have parents that would put up with that. That would be crazy.”

 

Tom Hasslinger
Tom Hasslinger is a journalist who lives in Kailua-Kona. Prior to joining Big Island Now, he worked as the managing editor for West Hawaii Today and deputy editor for The Garden Island newspaper on Kauai. He's worked for over 15 years as a reporter for the Oahu-based Civil Beat news outlet, as well as in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho and Douglas Wyoming.
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