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Former employee says Department of Education hasn’t done enough to protect against threats | Honolulu Star-Advertiser

It was frightening enough for then-state Department of Education Communications Director Lindsay Chambers to be the target of one school parent’s repeated furious calls and voicemails to the DOE, including some that contained intimidating, vulgar and racist language, and that indicated Chambers and her husband were being surveilled.

But a Sept. 24, 2020, voicemail in which the agitated parent declared that Chambers would be “terminated,” she said, made it clear to her she was in danger.

“I promise you, when this is all said and done, you will be begging on the side of the street because you will be terminated … ,” the man said in a voicemail left on a non-DOE line in which he repeatedly referred to Chambers by name.

While the man goes on to say he hopes Chambers would never work again in education, she said that given the man’s pattern of threats, “I took this as a not-so-veiled threat to kill me. The tone, delivery and intent behind what he said was absolutely physical harm to me.”

But worsening the trauma of the two-plus years of harassment and threats, Chambers said, was what she and her union advocates call a failure by DOE officials to support her with an adequate safety plan for her situation and to provide legal assistance to protect her and her staff from harm on the job.

She also believes some DOE officials tried to retaliate against her for speaking up.

In an unusual case of a former top-level DOE employee talking publicly and at length about the inner workings of a massive department often criticized for being unresponsive, Chambers agreed to share her story in detail for the first time. She said she wants to draw attention to a need for the DOE to create a stronger and more transparent system for protecting the growing number of public-school employees who are harassed and/or threatened by members of the public.

“My goal is to make sure no other employees go through what I did,” Chambers said.

Her story also sheds light on the tenuous path DOE treads as it attempts to discern which employees are under legitimate threats to their safety and how to best protect them, while still honoring an obligation to recognize parents’ needs and rights to express concerns and advocate for their children. Many education officials, however, say some parents have crossed the line into excessive aggressiveness.

Chambers is shielded now from the man’s threats by a three-year injunction against harassment — legal protection she had to pay for out of her own pocket — plus a job change into the private sector. But the fight to get to this point has come at a cost. She said she still struggles with anxiety and trauma, still fears for her and her family’s safety, still looks constantly over her shoulder.

The need for change at the DOE is urgent, Chambers and her supporters say, as reports of harassment against school employees have grown in number and severity across Hawaii and the U.S. — roughly one-third of educators nationwide have reported being harassed or threatened by parents — and targeted violence in the nation’s schools and other locations has spiked.

The Hawaii Government Employees Association currently is helping several DOE employees seek protection following severe harassment and threats, said Randy Perreira, executive director of the union, which represents principals and other educational officers.

“We’ve been lucky in Hawaii, where we haven’t seen the level of school violence that we see elsewhere,” Perreira said. “I’m not trying to be a doomsayer. We’re just concerned that at some point, there’s going to be a situation that boils over. And schools will be truly facing harm. And, you know, it starts with things like this, where a guy can call for an individual at the school … a hundred times a day and make whatever threats — it starts with stuff like that. But then it only gets worse and escalates.”

In a separate case, Katherine Balatico, principal of Stevenson Middle School, has reported receiving terrifying threats of violence and death against her and her children. She also has said the DOE has not done enough to keep her, her staff and her family safe. HGEA has helped both Balatico and Chambers file grievances against the department, which are still pending.

The DOE did not grant Honolulu Star-Advertiser requests for interviews with officials or provide Hawaii data on harassment of its employees, but in a written statement it said in part that it “does all that it can to support its employees when they are harassed. The department provides supervision and support to its employees at the workplace, during work hours. Counseling and other support services are also made available to support employees.

“When harassment goes beyond the workplace, the employee must rely upon the police department for assistance,” the DOE statement continued. “If the employee wishes to seek other remedies, such as seeking a temporary restraining order or injunction, the law does not permit the department to provide legal representation to pursue such actions.”

The state Department of the Attorney General did not grant an interview, but Gary Yamashiroya, special assistant to the attorney general, said in an email that his office would “continue to consult with and assist our client agency, the Department of Education, to maintain a secure school environment.”

State Board of Education Chair Bruce Voss said he could not comment on the Chambers case because she is a friend and her husband is employed at Voss’ law firm. Several other board members did not respond to emails requesting comment.

In reporting Chambers’ story, the Star-Advertiser reviewed nine recordings of harassing calls in which the caller identifies himself and names Chambers; excerpts of DOE records that document calls from the man and occasionally his wife, and their interactions with DOE staff; court documents; and written exchanges between Chambers, DOE administrators, representatives of the state attorney general’s office, union representatives and others.

The man is not named in this news story because the Star-Advertiser is not aware of any convictions related to his harassment of DOE employees.

Harassment intensifies

As Chambers sees it, she was caught in the middle, in the worst ways.

When she landed the job of communications director in 2019, the Communications Branch of the DOE by default handled complaints from parents and the public, despite making no educational decisions for individual students.

From as far back as 2011, the man had been calling with complaints to various DOE offices about the programs and treatment his children had received from their public schools. His messages and interactions with DOE staff often were aggressive and sometimes included profane language, racist statements and a mocking tone, according to staff logs.

Sometimes he called the DOE up to nine times in a day. Occasionally his wife called as well. Court and DOE documents indicate at least a half dozen employees across the department have separately filed TROs against the same parent, among his other court cases.

In September 2019, after the man began to target a member of Chambers’ staff and she filed a police report, Chambers says she was advised by DOE administrators to seek a TRO to protect staff members. She was surprised when the DOE later declined to assist with the filing or provide an attorney; she said their argument was that a TRO is considered a personal matter.

Chambers’ husband, attorney Christian Chambers, represented her in court but the petition was denied after the judge said Lindsay Chambers was not the specific target of the harassment at that time.

That first TRO attempt then led the man to make her one of his primary targets.

The threats and harassment aimed at Chambers came in streaks. In a four-minute-long voicemail from July 15, 2020, for instance, the man made disparaging remarks about her and called Hawaiian culture “that degenerate culture,” with accusations of cannibalism, sexual impropriety and political wrongdoing. Chambers said she thinks he said this because she was adopted by a Hawaiian family and signed her Hawaiian middle name to her emails.

He also mocked her husband, saying if the attorney wanted to defend Chambers, “we can do this in the parking lot and we can talk story all day,” which Chambers took as a local-style reference to physical fighting.

In the same voicemail, the man later turned his anger at then-state Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto over the COVID-19 indoor masking rule in effect at the time. “Second Amendment. Second Amendment! Look it up, Miss Superintendent,” he shouted, referring to the constitutional right to keep and bear arms.

In another call to the DOE 10 days later, he threatened to “take care of things himself,” and that he would “take whoever down,” according to staff call records.

In August 2020, the DOE blocked the man’s known phone numbers from reaching the Communications Branch. A shaken Chambers shifted into a different DOE job supporting its COVID-19 response team. But the man continued to find ways to harass her.

Claims of retaliation

In October 2020 the man told a staff member that he knew where Chambers and her family lived, and “made some kind of a veiled threat about meeting them on a hiking trail,” the staff member said in call records.

Chambers filed a second police report and asked the DOE to request representation by the attorney general’s office for a TRO, but neither agency assisted, she said.

“That makes no sense because it’s through the course of my employment that this was happening,” Chambers said.

She also sought unsuccessfully to get an investigation of sex-based harassment initiated through the DOE’s Civil Rights Compliance Office and Title IX specialist. Chambers said she was told her case did not qualify for Title IX protection.

At one point, a DOE official assigned a security guard to stay with Chambers through the work day. But Chambers said she did not ask for or want that because she felt it made her more conspicuous. She asked for a safety plan tailored to her case, to include measures such as being notified if the man contacted other departments. She was offered a draft originally made for someone else and no customized plan for her case was made, she said.

In a lawsuit that Chambers drafted but said she later decided not to file, her attorneys, James Koshiba and Jonathan Spiker, argued that the DOE had “an obligation to provide for the safety and well-being of its employees in the course of employees’ work duties and while employees are at DOE facilities/campuses and at DOE off-campus functions.”

The draft suit also alleged that because she questioned the DOE’s response to the harassment and threats made against her and requested assistance from the department, officials retaliated by refusing to provide assistance and resources, increasing its scrutiny and showing more hostility toward her.

The retaliation sometimes was subtle, Chambers told the Star-Advertiser, such as when she was uninvited to top-level meetings with no notice. Sometimes it was blatant, she said, as when she was told a DOE official was heard accusing her of exaggerating the threat and calling her a “hysterical wahine.”

In January 2021, Chambers won the three-year injunction against harassment. This year she left the coveted high-level DOE communications job. The reason she has not sued, she said, is that “the burden of living through a lawsuit was not worth it. I don’t think I would’ve survived.”

Chambers has undergone therapy to cope with fear and depression. For years she dared take her young daughter to only one restaurant where she felt safe.

“It has changed how I do things, my patterns, my habits,” she said.

It changed her young daughter too. The 10-year-old still constantly locks the house and car doors.

Chambers said she hopes telling her story will help other school employees who have been targeted.

“For people in the DOE, it’s hard to speak up,” she said. “I hope people will get the courage to speak up, because that’s when change will happen.”

Hawaii’s public schools

The Hawaii Department of Education is the 10th largest school district in the U.S., and the nation’s only statewide school system. Hawaii public schools are organized into 15 complex areas across six islands.

258 regular public schools, with 159,503 students

37 public charter schools, with 12,097 students

Total students: 171,600

Total salaried employees: 22,600

>> Teachers: 12,810

>> Other salaried employees (including administrators, and state, complex and school staff): 9,790

Casual hires and substitute employees: 20,000

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