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New research highlights racial inequities faced by Micronesian students in Hawaiʻi schools

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It has been a little more than a year since Micronesian teenager Iremamber Sykap was shot and killed by Honolulu Police Department officers following a pursuit through Honolulu. His death renewed public discussions on racial profiling and discrimination experienced by the local Micronesian community.

"The police department needs to end its practice of racial profiling against Micronesians in Hawaiʻi," Jon Okamura, professor emeritus at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, said.

Okamura was part of a local group of scholars called the Hawaiʻi Scholars for Education and Social Justice. The group compiled research on education and social justice in the state.

"This is evident from the 26% of Micronesians constituted of those who were arrested for stay-at-home order violations during the first year of the pandemic. And they constitute 1% of the population of Hawaiʻi," Okamura told HPR.

HSESJ's newest paper argued the system discrimination of Micronesians is in several institutions, including the public education system.

"There's system problems happening. For example, in our graduation rates for students from Micronesia," Brook Chapman de Sousa, co-author of the paper, said. "As well as attendance, when we're comparing the attendance in days in school of this population, compared to state averages — there are significant differences."

Chapman de Sousa said their research found multiple accounts of students experiencing hate speech and bullying at school. Both could be causes of lower graduation and attendance rates.

Okamura said the most common form of hate speech and bullying comes from "Micronesian jokes."

"If you go online, and read these jokes, they are some of the most vile representations, dehumanizing perceptions, statements about Micronesians or any people that you could find," Okamura said. "They're much worse than Filipino jokes, which are very common up until 20 years ago."

The group based their findings on studies and data from the state and federal education departments, as well as other local sources.

Between 2013 and 2018, only half of the Micronesian students who started high school wound up graduating. That's more than a third below the overall state graduation rate.

The paper argued other policies and practices may contribute to the inequities these students face, such as support for the state's English Language program.

"We have a need for more qualified teachers to instruct English learners," said Chapman de Sousa. "The state is lacking in that area, and has been starting initiatives to improve. But it has been a problem."

Programs such as the Bilingual School Home Assistants served as a liaison between teachers and the community and families. But Chapman de Sousa said support for that program has also been lacking.

But she acknowledged there are advances being made within public schools, such as the DOE's Seal of Biliteracy program.

"That's a program that recognizes the accomplishments of biliterate and bilingual students. So it's that idea of celebrating students for their bilingualism, and that's had a lot of success in places like Waipahu High School."

The paper also noted there are inequities for Micronesian students pursuing higher education. While only 50% of Micronesian students who start high school graduate, the number of students who go to the University of Hawaiʻi dwindles even more.

It found that COFA students make up only 0.25% of UH Manoa's 10,688 undergraduates. And only 27 Micronesian undergraduates (not including Chamorro) were enrolled in the fall 2020 semester.

The paper recommended several policy changes including expanding curriculum and resources for underserved students, and stricter enforcement of rules against race-based mistreatment of students.

However, Okamura said residents can make a difference outside of the classroom.

"Stop spreading anti-Micronesian jokes," he tells HPR. "Please consider how Micronesian people, including youngsters, feel about being called a cockroach or a leech, or people make fun of them about how they dress, how they look.

"It's not a policy recommendation, but it's just an appeal to the people of Hawaiʻi, in terms of how they perceive and treat Micronesians. By living in a multicultural society, such as online, they should also extend the values of aloha, inclusion, and commitment to diversity towards us who live here — including Micronesians."

While the paper focuses on Micronesian students, Okamura and Chapman de Sousa say Native Hawaiians, and those of Pacific Islander and Filipino descent are also impacted by inequities in the education system.

HSESJ is looking for cosigners on the research brief. Click here to read the draft report.

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