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Big Island teacher accused of bullying, hitting students

Updated: 
May 10, 2014 - 5:55am

The Pahoa-based Hawaii Academy of Arts and Sciences is supposed to be a safe harbor for students and their parents seeking an alternative to the teasing and violence they’d experienced at other public schools.

But now, a HAAS teacher has been accused of hitting and verbally abusing fourth-grade students in her class, and parents say administrators have done little to inform them about the complaints or prevent the teacher from having further contact with their children.

Thursday night, parents, faculty and staff members convened at a regularly scheduled meeting of the school’s Governing Board to vent their frustration over a situation they said has yet to be resolved to their satisfaction since the first allegation was made more than three months ago.

“It’s time for you to answer our questions,” said Debra Isabel, a teacher at the school who claims her 9-year-old son, who has special needs, was physically and verbally abused by his teacher, Shannon K. Smith.

“I have remained silent and entrusted HAAS to conduct a fair investigation while I paid close attention to the details as it unfolded.”

Parents recounted episodes in which they said their children were called “stupid,” told to “shut up,” or had their ears flicked by Smith. In one instance, a parent claimed, a child had his mouth duct-taped to prevent him from “whining.”

“My 10-year-old was told, ‘Keep your hands under you, or I’ll cut them off,’” parent Dan Biegler said.

Board members told meeting attendees they had been wrapped up in negotiations with the Hawaii State Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers at the school, since the board was first notified of the allegations.

“You have to understand, we have limited moves we can make,” said Michael Dodge, the board’s vice chairman.

Dodge told attendees an agreement had been reached which would keep Smith on administrative paid leave until the end of the school year, at which time she would no longer be an employee of the school. Smith was to remain off campus during that time.

However, parents told the board Thursday night that Smith was present at the school’s May 2 Hoolaulea, interacting with and touching some students. Parents claimed that administrators had been notified of Smith’s presence, but nothing was done to remove her from campus.

They also claimed the lack of information provided to parents during the entire period had been “appalling.”

“We were told nothing,” said father David Marquis, who claimed that his child had also been abused by Smith. “We received three letters telling us the teacher was being removed and who her replacement was, but they said nothing about why.”

In a phone interview Friday morning, Principal Steve Hirakami explained that school boards often feel hamstrung when dealing with personnel issues, saying that confidentiality is an important part of maintaining some control over the outcome.

“I’m about how to protect the kids,” he said. “The parents and families are saying ‘We will stop at nothing to keep her from teaching again, anywhere.’ They’re after her license, they don’t want her to teach on the mainland or anywhere else. … The thing is, this bureaucratic mess in Hawaii, it’s the most unionized state in the nation. They have no idea how hard it is to remove a teacher due to the HSTA and its strong political ties. They don’t know how cumbersome it is to work within the system.”

Hirakami said the board intends to meet with Smith on Tuesday, and is seeking to nullify her separation agreement as a result of her alleged failure to stay away from the campus. If that happens, the teacher would likely be put on leave without pay. It could also nullify some confidentiality requirements, he said, which might allow the school to be more forthcoming with details about the investigation.

He said the school will overcome this episode and go on to become stronger and better equipped to deal with similar instances in the future.

“On the most part, this is a great school, it’s a safe school,” he said.

“I’d be upset too … if my child was in an abusive situation, and I know everyone is looking for answers,” said 17-year-old student board member Austin Brown. “But it’s all about the law the board is required to follow,” he said.

“This is the only school where I’ve felt completely safe. … The rest of HAAS is not like that.”

Hawaii County Prosecutor Mitch Roth said Friday afternoon that his office is currently looking into the allegations against the teacher as a result of a police report filed by Isabel in January.

“It’s an active investigation and we can’t comment on the facts at this point,” Roth said.

Attempts to contact Smith for comment on this story were unsuccessful as of press time Friday.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.