Image: Manny Pangilinan

In tough times, Leeward teens reject their rough reputation
Comes with video


Cover image for Dec 9, 2009

Education / After improvement at the beginning of the decade, some key social indicators show that things are starting to go the other way for Hawaii’s teenagers. Teen pregnancy is on the rise, the state’s teen idle rate–which measures dropouts who aren’t working–is among the highest in the nation. Even the death rate among teenagers in Hawaii has shot up in recent years. To begin to better understand what day-to-day life is like for local teens, Honolulu Weekly started at Waianae High School, where fistfights are common, the drop-out rate is higher than any other school in the state and the students feel grossly misunderstood.

Fighting reputation

All of them say school is tough. All of them have stories to back it up. Drop-outs, burn-outs and teen parents are regular players in their high school experience. No, it isn’t like this at every school in Hawaii. Still, the students at Waianae High School are tired of being treated like bad news.

“I guess people think we are gangsters,” says Mark*, a 15-year-old freshman at Waianae. “But we’re not.”

It’s a brilliantly sunny November morning at Waianae, just past 7am. Students are already on campus, gathering casually in semi-circles, sitting in stairwells and beside one another on shaded benches. With nearly an hour to spare before the first bell rings, they’re listening to Kiwini Vaitai and R&B on their iPods, gossiping and joking. Mark is standing beneath a tree in a grassy open courtyard with half a dozen friends. The students are full of happy energy. It’s peacful here, though that’s not always the case.

“You know da stuff you hear on da news?” asks Waianae senior Jayson with a broad grin. After a short pause and snicker, he goes on: “That wasn’t true.”

The group laughs around him, knowing that the news he’s referring to is that of a recent schoolyard riot, one that reportedly put the school on lockdown, involved dozens of students and led to a number of juvenile arrests and school suspensions.

“Everybody like fighting everybody,” says James, a 16-year-old standing across the lawn with three friends. “Constant fighting. And it’s the dumbest stuff people fight about. Just idiotic stuff. He said, she said, who said, whatever.”

Ask kids at Waianae about what high school is like and most of them bring up fighting before anything else. To some, it’s a necessary distraction. If you don’t know how to fight, you get teased or, worse, beat up. Sticking up for friends is a must, too–it’s what led Crystal to get punched in the jaw by one of her male classmates.

“I was trying to hold this boy back because he was trying to mob one of our friends,” she says. “So I was holding him back and he punched me. It’s scary but we’re used to it. Plus, people never use guns or stuff like that. It’s not the mainland, just straight-up Waianae.”

For Crystal and others, going home with a fat lip or a black eye means getting in trouble–not for fighting in the first place, but for losing.

“At home, my parents just ask me if I won,” says Jayson, his friends nodding in agreement. “When you get home, if you didn’t fight back or if you lost, they give you lickings.”

Students say the way they’re disciplined (or not disciplined) at school is a source of resentment–“football boys never get in trouble for the same fights,” some of them claim–and one that reinforces contentious relationships between cliques. They complain of favoritism and racism. Most of all, they say they feel that they go unheard.

“Adults don’t listen to us,” says Crystal. “The only opportunity we get to be heard is slam poetry in the cafeteria.”

Several Waianae students say they use poetry as a way to express frustration about how they’re perceived. Type in “Waianae” in the search bar on YouTube and the first four suggestions that appear are “waianae fights,” “waianae scraps,” “waianae high school fights,” and “waianae riot.” But among them is a video called “I am Waianae 2009.” It features two girls, declaring who they are–and who they aren’t.

“They all think that we’re a waste of time, space, money and teaching,” says one of them. “Thinking that we can’t and won’t ever make it out there in the world. Naming every bum on the island to probably have come from Waianae. But we’re from Waianae, we have a future.”

It’s a powerful message and one that the students at the school reinforce repeatedly.

“That’s why we like somebody come to the school and see how it is,” says Jayson. “I like somebody hearing our voice. Kids have no more voice over here.”

“We like the teachers who will listen to us and what we have to say,” says Robert. “This high school? This is our reality. Adults don’t know the things we know.”

Confronting reality

What adults do know is that Waianae High School, as a community, needs help.

“If you look at Waianae, and specifically the high school, there are some indicators from the school and within the community that speak to the fact that this is a low-income area,” says Sylvia Yuen, director of the Center on the Family at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “We know that being of low income can lead to a lot of poor outcomes for teens: a higher dropout rate, more kids not going on to college and so on.”

Indeed, Waianae High School has posted the highest drop-out rate of any high school in Hawaii since at least 2001. Last year’s drop-out rate–as tallied over four-years starting with the graduating class’ freshman year–was 30.6 percent, compared to a state average of 11.9 percent for public high schools that submitted data to the Hawaii Department of Education. That’s compared to 7 percent nationally. It’s data, like any statistical compilation, that can be misleading–in Hawaii, students who switch schools are counted in the drop-out rate and those who enter the system after freshman year aren’t counted–but the rate at Wai’anae still raises eyebrows.

“Any time a student leaves school early, there’s a concern,” says Daniel Hamada, assistant superintendent at the Hawaii Department of Education. “You want to make sure the quality of education can be continued. Anytime you lose one child, that’s a concern. That’s the bottom line.”

And there are additional concerns that can go hand-in-hand with the drop-out rate: Teen pregnancy, domestic violence, substance abuse–Hawaii still ranks fifth in the nation for the highest rate of crystal meth abuse–among others. But to get at the root of these problems, the students at Waianae are right to insist that adults must attempt to understand the complexities of the world as teen’s today experience it.

Net effects

A lot of it is still adults trying to figure out what the lives of young people are like,” says Brian O’Connor of the Family Violence Prevention Fund. “A lot of that has to do with the Internet. Kids don’t look at it as offline or online, they just look at is as their life. They’ve always grown up on the Internet.”

That’s true at Waianae, where students say the rumors that lead to fistfights are started and spread on social networking sites. Teens all over Oahu and beyond are faced with decisions about how much of themselves to share, on and offline, without always understanding the possible repercussions. One 17-year-old student at Farrington High School says one of her friends was cajoled by a much older man to send nude photos of herself–despite the warnings they received in school about being careful on the Internet.

“My friend had a Myspace at one point and she met this musician guy on there,” says Maya. “He was kind of a creeper, he was older. It said on his profile he was 30-something and we were 16, so it was kind of weird. He knew exactly how old she was, he knew she was in high school, and next thing I know, I go on facebook and nude pictures of her came up. Turns out she sent them to him and he posted them for everyone to see.”

For as much as technology amplifies the consequences of relationships in harmful ways, technology like the Internet can also work for good–particularly when it comes to opening the lines of communication between teens and adults who care about their well-being, as well as between teens themselves. Many hotlines like TeenLine Hawaii have added chatline components. Still, a resource is only effective when it’s tapped.

“The statistic here in Hawaii is that by the time they are seniors in high school, one out of two people–primarily females–will know someone who has been in an abusive relationship,” said Stephanie Ragolia, program manager at another local teen outreach program, Teen Alert. “It’s a huge concern. It takes a lot for an adult to call a hotline, but for a child? They often don’t have the education to know what’s happening is even abuse. But we know that teens talk to each other and we know they watch each other’s habits.”

Sticking together

That’s true, too, back at Waianae High School, where a trio of freshmen girls giggling quietly among themselves look practically like triplets by their mannerisms. None of them is much taller than 5’1”. All three say they’re 14. When asked how they like high school so far, they answer in unison: “I hate it.” Then, more giggling.

For them, it’s not the fighting–which they say is easy to avoid and mostly just “entertaining”–or the fact that their classmates are dropping out of school or having babies that bothers them.

“We get so much homework,” Tina says. “And then, like, I don’t know. I feel really small compared to all the upperclassmen, ’cause I’m short.”

The girls say they’re also intimidated by the cliquishness at school.

“Everybody has their own spot,” says Jessica. “There’s the boys that sit on the front steps, the boys that sit right over there, the boys that sit on the back steps. You can’t just sit down there because that’s where they sit.”

But some of the other social stresses many adults associate with the high school years–exposure to drugs, how far to go with a guy–are things these teens first confronted even earlier. It’s far from uncommon, they say, to smell marijuana smoke on campus.

“The boys at the back steps, they’re all ignorant,” says Tina. “They’re all about weed and drugs.”

“Yeah, definitely weed,” says Jessica. “If you walk past, you can smell it. And sometimes they go to the beach to do it, too, because the beach is right there. You only get caught if someone snitches, really. And if you snitch, you end up in a fight.”

So the girls ignore it. They ignore a lot of what surrounds them, actually.

“Drugs and alcohol. That stuff is everywhere,” says Tina. “Everywhere. This is Waianae! No offense to stereotype it but it’s true that it’s everywhere. But you can choose whatever you like. It’s your choice. It’s all your choice.”

Let’s talk about sex

When it comes to sex, the girls say it isn’t as easy to say no. They say a lot of girls in their class started having sex in eighth grade, when they were still at Waianae Intermediate School.

“I even knew some seventh graders,” says Tina. “Most of it’s pressure from the guys. And you’re not going to go home and talk to your parents about it!”

Of course, some students’ sexual choices mean that they are now parents themselves. After a decline in teen birth rates between 2000 and 2006, the rate of teens aged 15–19 giving birth in Hawaii is steadily climbing again.

“Between 2005 and 2006 in Hawaii, there was an increase,” says Laura Beavers, National Kids Count coordinator at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, Md. “Starting in 2005, the teen birth rate leveled off and started to go up. In one year, it went from 36 births out of 1,000 girls to 41 births.”

Researchers say the jump is particularly significant because it’s greater than a slight national increase over the same period of time, which highlights some troubling data about contraceptive use in the state.

“We have the lowest percentage of condom use for those teens who are having sex of any state in the nation,” says Sonia Blackiston, director of education and training at Planned Parenthood of Hawaii. “So we’re dead last in condom use and we rank in the top 10 for the highest rate of teen pregnancy. It’s very alarming.”

Students at Waianae say that it isn’t for lack of education–or access to birth control–that their classmates end up getting pregnant.

“There’s a lot of pregnancy here,” says Erica, a sophomore at Waianae. “Like, a lot. The majority of people have sex, I think. They taught us all about condoms, but sometimes people just don’t use them. I don’t know why.”

“We learned how to put a condom on a pickle,” laughs Robert. “And a banana!” Heather chimes in.

Students at Waianae talk openly about sex, and say some of their peers see parenthood as a means to celebrity, and babies as accessories.

“For some people, having a baby is popular, yeah?” says James. “Because everybody will start knowing them and everybody will start recognizing them. It’s a status symbol, definitely.”

Others say teen pregnancy begets teen pregnancy–that girls see their teenaged older sisters with babies and envision themselves as mothers, too.

“Babies who are born to teens are most likely to have a lot of issues,” says the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Beavers. “They’re more likely to be born into families that aren’t economically stable, they’re more likely to have a low birth-weight, the list goes on and on.”

Becoming parents also makes it difficult for teens to balance their responsibilities. In a lot of cases, education becomes less of a priority, and many teen parents end up dropping out to find work to support their young families. Even worse, researchers say, is the growing population of idle teens in Hawaii. Of the 10 social indicators that the Annie E. Casey Foundation tracks for its annual Kids Count report, Hawaii’s worst ranking is its rate of idle teens.

“These are the kids who are not in the workforce…and not in school,” says Beavers. “It’s about nine percent of the population in Hawaii… about 6,000 teenagers, which sounds like a small number but when you think about 6,000 kids not going to school and not working, it’s significant.”

It’s also higher than the national average, and while it’s lower than the 10 percent teen-idle rate recorded for Hawaii at the beginning of the decade, it’s still a problem.

“If you’re between the ages of 16 and 19 and you’re not attending school, and you’re not working, what are you doing with your time?” asks the Center on the Family’s Yuen. “It means that you’re likely not engaged in anything that is going to advance your life in a positive, meaninful way. If that happens, then what are your prospects as an adult?”

Making it out alive

Finding a job is one thing. Just making it to adulthood is another. Some of the most alarming statistics that assess local teens’ well-being come from examining the death rate over the past decade. Hawaii’s teen death rate, which Beavers calls “the ultimate indicator,” has jumped 39 percent since 2000.

“Hawaii actually does pretty well, from a national standpoint, despite that major increase,” says Beavers. “But part of that could be because kids are not in cars as much in Hawaii as, say, kids in South Dakota or Minnesota, where it might be 30 miles just to get to school.”

Still, the leading cause of death for teens in Hawaii is traffic accidents, followed by suicide, which students at Waianae cite as something that stresses them out about the high school experience.

There’s a lot of people suicidal here,” says Crystal. “My friend, two months ago, she had so much problems so she killed herself. Adults don’t really talk about it. Not regularly.”

These are heavy issues for anyone of any age to handle. On a day to day basis, though, the kids at Waianae worry about the same things that kids all over the island worry about, and generally act the way that all young people do as they negotiate their way through adolescence. They complain about math homework, make catty comments about rivals, flirt with one another and dream about the freedom that adulthood promises.

“There are lots of kids doing great things despite tremendous challenges,” says Complex Area Superintendent for Nanakuli and Waianae Lisa DeLong. “On campus after school, I see hundreds of students involved in football practice, ROTC, training for triathlons. Searider Productions classrooms are full of students. The campus is a center for the community, and students are there all the time.”

DeLong says education leaders are also in the midst of launching a multi-pronged approach to strengthening that community. Based on a model used in Harlem, N.Y. and other areas, they’re working to meet strident national criteria to declare Waianae a “learning innovation zone.”

“We’re trying to get all layers involved: education, community groups, family, military, really have everybody do their part. We talk about how we can connect our dots and make sure every child has access to services and every family knows how to be a strong family. People can’t do it alone, they need partners.”

Already, the majority of students at Waianae do graduate and the majority of them consistently make good choices.

“Lots of great leaders in Hawaii have come from very humble circumstances,” says Yuen. “But we could be doing much more than we’re doing to help these kids in Waianae and everywhere in Hawaii. What a kids needs is one adult, just one adult who’s really committed and passionate about the kid. The one who will say, ‘you have it within you, you just have to work hard, and I’m watching and monitoring you.’”

Back at Waianae High School on that November morning, the 7:55am bell rings. Kids start moving from their various perches and heading to class. Staff members begin rounding the campus, looking for stragglers. The semi-circle of students who had gathered in the courtyard is splitting up, heading in different directions. One of them is walking away, ribbing his friends, when he turns back and calls out.

“Will you put it in your article about us wanting to have a voice? Please don’t forget about us wanting to have a voice.”

*Names of minors changed for their protection