Kaua'i educator gets year in jail for abuse

Date: 2005-04-27

By Jan TenBruggencate

LIHU'E, Kaua'i — Minutes after being sentenced to a year in jail for brutally beating her adopted son, Kaua'i charter school administrator Hedy Sullivan stood outside the Lihu'e courthouse, praying and singing with a crowd of parents and children.

Throughout the case, Sullivan, 56, has had the unfailing support of the board of directors of Kula Aupuni Niihau A Kahelelani Aloha, a charter school in Kekaha with 36 students. The board is primarily made up of Hawaiian-speaking natives of the island of Ni'ihau.

Sullivan, who must report to jail Friday, was allowed to keep her job after pleading guilty to two counts of felony assault, and there are no rules to prevent her from returning to the school once she is released.

A statement by the boy introduced during yesterday's sentencing described a pattern of abuse, including being hit on the head with a metal spoon and being burned with scalding water. The child, who was 11 when taken from Sullivan's home, also said he was threatened with having his tongue cut off with scissors.

"My adopted mother did a lot of bad things to me," his statement said. "I hope never to see that evil lady again."

When she was sentenced, Sullivan stood erect before 5th Circuit Judge George Masuoka, appearing regal in a purple-print mu'umu'u and wearing several long strands of Ni'ihau shells, a lei of ferns and flowers in her hair. "I feel the deepest pain you can ever imagine. ... I blame no one. I make no excuses. I accept full responsibility for my true actions," she told the judge.

"Nothing, nothing justifies what you did," Masuoka told her.

Nearby, on the prosecutor's table, were photographs of her adopted son taken in April 2004, displaying rope marks around his wrists and neck, and bruises that deputy prosecutor Jennifer Winn said covered nearly every part of his body. Winn said police found the injured boy with his hands tied behind his back and no adults present at the home.

Approximately 60 members of the West Kaua'i Ni'ihau community were in the courtroom for the sentencing. Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee Donald Cataluna (Kaua'i-Ni'ihau) was among those offering support for Sullivan and asking for leniency from Masuoka. Cataluna said he had known the woman for five years and cited her "deep aloha for the Ni'ihau children."

Supporters described Sullivan as a woman grief-stricken about her behavior. Her hanai brother, Lance Halemano, said she was a loving sister and "a wonderful mom" to her two natural children and 10 grandchildren.

Statements in the court described the victim as a seriously troubled child who on one occasion tried to set fire to propane tanks. Testimony also suggested that Sullivan simply lost control as a result of not knowing how to handle the boy, who has been placed in foster care.

"She had a total misunderstanding of how to handle a child" with her adopted son's problems, said her attorney, William Feldhacker.

Psychologist Robert Horne, who treated Sullivan during 28 one-hour sessions starting last year, said "her loss of temper and control is something that every parent has experienced to some extent."

Sullivan pleaded guilty Jan. 18 to two counts of second-degree assault, which each carry a maximum five-year prison term. Later, after changing attorneys, she tried to withdraw the plea, but Masuoka turned down that request.

Winn argued for the maximum penalty, saying Sullivan's actions "merit the harshest of punishment."

The judge said he had been inclined to levy the maximum, but instead ordered Sullivan to serve the jail term and five years of probation, pay $4,350 in fines, perform 1,000 hours of community service, complete an anger-management program, and maintain full-time employment after being released from jail.

Feldhacker said afterward that he had not had an opportunity to discuss an appeal or other options with Sullivan.

State charter schools program chief Jim Shon said it is his understanding the Kula Aupuni Niihau A Kahelelani Aloha board had discussed options in case Sullivan was unable to continue as administrator. Board members weren't available for comment yesterday, but others said plans are being made to ensure the school's future.

"Everyone was waiting for this shoe to drop, and now it has. I do think that there are some other folks involved who are ready to step in. I have been assured that there is a Plan B. I just haven't seen it," Shon said.

If it wants, the board of Kula Aupuni Niihau A Kahelelani Aloha could rehire Sullivan after she is out of jail, according to Shon.

In the case of charter schools, "the local board is the decision maker and employer" and can set its own employment standards, he said.

Even regular state Department of Education employees who are felons are not automatically precluded from working at schools. That is up to the superintendent of education, he said.

Lehua Kanahele, board chairwoman of Sullivan's school, earlier said the assault conviction is a personal matter that has nothing to do with her performance at the school.

The board of the neighboring Ni'ihau charter school, Ke Kula Niihau O Kekaha, has offered its help, said that school's director, Haunani Seward.

"Our boards plan to meet and try to find some solution" Seward said. "We want to do whatever we can."

The two schools have fundamentally different approaches to education for the Ni'ihau Hawaiian-speaking community living on Kaua'i. Seward's school teaches in Hawaiian through grade 5, then teaches English as a second language. Sullivan's school teaches in English.

Initially, there was just one alternative school for Ni'ihau children on Kaua'i, but parents split off into the two schools over the differences in which language to use, as well as other issues.

It was not clear whether the crisis over Sullivan's criminal conviction could lead to a reconciliation.

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