How Far Is Too Far? Parents Push The Limits Of Harassment In Hawaii Schools

The Hawaii Department of Education grapples with how to keep employees safe while respecting families' rights.

Rep. David Tarnas said he hopes House Bill 1651 will put pressure on DOE to review and clarify its procedures on responding to employees’ harassment claims. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat)

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Over the last 13 years, 10 teachers and public school employees in Hawaii have sought restraining orders against a single parent they say has repeatedly harassed and threatened them. 

According to court documents, the parent has called school employees a “pregnant dog in heat” and a “Fucken Micronesian Idiot,” told a principal he had hired a private investigator to investigate them, made shooting and throat-slitting motions at another teacher while driving past them, joined his son’s online class without warning and insulted the principal, and threatened to find a DOE employee on a hiking trail to confront her and her family. 

Yet very few of the restraining orders filed against the parent have been approved. While police have struggled to serve him papers for a court hearing, judges and state officials have also been wary of infringing on the right of a parent to participate in their children’s education.

The parent is “an individual with a belligerent personality who communicates with verbal intimidation and swearing in order to control and overpower any attempt to having a civil conversation with him,” James Halvorson, a supervising deputy attorney general, wrote in a letter to a former Department of Education worker in 2021. But, the letter added, the Hawaii Department of Education has “an obligation to communicate with him regarding the education of his children.” 

The parent, Jerome Costa, declined to comment for this story.

DOE’s 13-year struggle to curb Costa’s behavior illustrates the difficult balance schools must strike between protecting teachers and respecting parents’ say in their children’s education.

The Covid-19 pandemic only exacerbated this dilemma, with parents losing trust in the public school system and teachers taking the brunt of families’ frustrations with online learning, said Amy Klinger, director of programs for the Educator’s School Safety Network. In an American Psychological Association survey conducted in 2020 and 2021, nearly half of teachers said they wished to or planned to quit their jobs because they felt unsafe, threatened or unsupported at work. 

Hawaii lawmakers are now considering a bill that would increase protections for school workers. By requiring DOE to develop additional procedures for responding to harassment claims, advocates say the bill establishes clear expectations for the protections and support teachers should expect to receive when dealing with unreasonable parents. 

But separating unwanted parent behavior from harassment can be a difficult task, Klinger said, adding that she doesn’t know of any states or districts that have developed the perfect policy response. 

“Clearly we want to protect teachers. 100%,” Klinger said. “But also, we have to not treat parents as though they are the enemy.” 

The legal limitations of harassment

In Hawaii, harassing an individual is considered a petty misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine of $1,000. 

But charging a parent with harassment can be a difficult task for teachers. Under state law, harassment includes repeated calls which intend to “harass, annoy, or alarm” the recipient and have no legitimate purpose. 

Families often have legitimate reasons for contacting schools, even if employees feel that their communication is unwanted or overly-aggressive, said attorney Megan Kau. 

Even if a parent repeatedly contacts a school directing calls at a specific teacher, Kau added, the courts may not consider these calls a form of direct communication that constitutes harassment. 

Teachers can also file temporary restraining orders which, if granted, can lead to a court hearing granting them a restraining order for a maximum of three years. It can be easier to make a case of harassment when filing a temporary restraining order, but teachers would still need to prove that a parent is contacting them unnecessarily, Kau said. 

Lindsay Chambers, DOE’s former communications director, sought criminal harassment charges against Costa in late 2020. Chambers said she received threatening phone calls and voicemails from Costa that began in 2019 and continued until 2021. 

“Mrs. Lindsay Chambers, that female genital, that female dog – yes, I’m using definitions of what she is,” Costa said in one voicemail, according to an internal complaint Chambers filed while working in the DOE. “Anytime your husband wants to shake my hand and talk to me like a man we can do so. I would love to have this conversation with him about how his wife is such an evil person.” 

Chambers said she interpreted this voicemail as a threat that Costa would fight her husband and harm her family, adding that his calls constituted “intense psychological harassment” over three years. 

But the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office declined to press harassment charges against Costa. 

In a 2020 call with Chambers, deputy prosecutor Dwane Tegman said it would be difficult to pursue her case because Costa was consistently contacting DOE’s communications branch, rather than communicating with Chambers directly. 

While Costa’s calls were inappropriate, Tegman added, they also served the purpose of communicating his concerns about his children’s education. 

“He does have a partial legitimate purpose, at least, in complaining about his kids’ education,” Tegman said in the call, which Chambers recorded and shared with Civil Beat. 

Chambers ultimately received a restraining order against Costa in January 2021. At that point, Chambers had moved from DOE’s communications branch to the department’s Covid-19 response team, and said Costa had no reason to contact her. 

Chambers left DOE a year later. 

Uncertainty Around Internal Policies

When it comes to employee harassment, DOE has limited legal options, said Ken Kakesako, who serves as the director of the department’s policy, innovation, planning and evaluation branch. 

“We are not law enforcement,” Kakesako said in a legislative hearing last month. 

DOE isn’t able to file TROs or press harassment charges on teachers’ behalf. If administrators receive harassment reports, they can pursue solutions such as developing safety plans for employees or reporting incidents to the police, said Deputy Superintendent Heidi Armstrong. 

DOE is also able to ban individuals from entering school campuses for a year. If the harasser is also a parent, the department will develop a plan explaining how an individual can remain involved in their child’s education, Armstrong said. 

In spring 2022, DOE issued a letter to Costa banning him from entering all school campuses and department offices. While Costa’s spouse was allowed to attend in-person meetings and contact schools on the family’s behalf, Costa’s communications with DOE were supposed to be limited to speaking with a department official over the phone for an hour every Friday. 

But school workers filed nine more TROs against Costa after DOE issued its letter. According to the TROs, Costa continued to repeatedly call school lines to criticize and threaten employees.

Principals and administrators have a responsibility to remedy situations making teachers feel harassed or threatened, said Andrea Eshelman, deputy executive director of the Hawaii State Teachers Association. But, she said, DOE typically handles harassment incidents on a case-by-case basis, leaving educators unsure what protections they’re entitled to. 

“That’s just a general obligation of an employer, you need to make sure that your employees are feeling safe,” Eshelman said. “It’s not super clear on what steps those administrators have to do.”

A new provision in HSTA’s contract explicitly requires principals to take “appropriate action” when responding to harassment reports, including developing safety plans, initiating internal investigations or supporting employees in pursuing restraining orders. 

If teachers believe their administration hasn’t appropriately responded to their harassment claims, Eshelman said, HSTA can initiate a grievance process. 

The union filed three harassment-related grievances against DOE within the first two months of the school year. Eshelman said the three cases were not related to one another but would not share more in order to protect teachers’ privacy. 

DOE communications director Nanea Kalani said the department doesn’t consistently track statewide harassment reports from employees. 

The search for legislative solutions

Other states and school districts have also searched for ways to protect teachers without discouraging parents from participating in their children’s education. 

A California bill introduced last year would have made it a misdemeanor for parents to interfere with teachers’ lives by harassing or threatening them outside of school. The bill passed the Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom. 

“The tenor of our country’s political conversations is alarming,” Newsom said in his veto message. “Nevertheless, we need to be cautious about exacerbating tensions by implementing additional laws that can be perceived as stifling parents’ voices in the decision-making process.”

Now, Hawaii lawmakers are grappling with similar concerns. 

Drafted by Chambers and two teachers, House Bill 1651 requires DOE to develop more standardized policies to address employee complaints of harassment. Under the bill, procedures include reporting all harassment incidents involving physical threats to the police within 48 hours and providing workers with paid leave to attend court proceedings relating to TROs and harassment charges. 

“It’s clear that the status quo is not sufficient to protect the employees,” said Rep. David Tarnas, chair of the House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee. 

similar bill introduced in 2022 included similar provisions but also proposed to create a new crime, the harassment of an educational worker, which would be a misdemeanor. Under the bill, harassment would cover any acts which aimed to “impede the government operations of an educational worker” and would disrupt or interfere with a school’s functions. 

Punishment for a misdemeanor includes up to one year in prison and $2,000 in fines. 

The 2022 bill failed to pass, with advocates and parents submitting hundreds of pages of testimony against the proposed policy. Many argued the bill’s definition of harassment was overly broad and would target parents who frustrated or annoyed teachers. In particular, parents of special education students argued that the bill would punish them as they advocated for better services and accommodations for their children.

HB 2125 “chills parents (from) accessing skills and educational success. It would affect parents in their communications with the DOE and BOE and intimidate them,” Cynthia Bartlett, a member of the Hawaii Autism Foundation, said in written testimony. 

An early version of HB 1651 also included a provision raising the harassment of school employees to a misdemeanor but that part was removed after legislators decided existing state laws on harassment provided enough protection to teachers. The bill has passed through the House and is now awaiting a hearing in the Senate. 

Even with these changes, Chambers said she believes the bill will establish important accountability measures for DOE. By requiring DOE to track and document all harassment claims, the bill can help the department identify parents with a history of harassment and aid employees in making a stronger case for restraining orders and other legal protections in the future, she added. 

“This is a service that cannot turn people away, cannot turn children away,” Chambers said. 

This story was published originally on Honolulu Civil Beat.

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