FBI Honolulu Adopt-a-School: Waipahu High School Students

Adopt-a-School Program

Reducing Crime, Empowering a Community

All the evidence led to the University of Hawaii’s West Oahu campus, to a field that appeared to contain a shallow grave. Taking direction from their FBI mentor, two teams of young investigators began to excavate the site, using trowels and soft brushes, working methodically until the freshly exposed earth revealed the outlines of a skull.

For the students from two different high schools, the hands-on dig was part of a mock kidnapping case they were investigating, and the culmination of a yearlong introduction to the FBI and the workings of the criminal justice system. For Special Agent Arnold Laanui, the exercise capped another successful year for the FBI Honolulu Division’s Adopt-a-School program—and it reaffirmed his passionate belief that one of the best ways to reduce crime in at-risk communities is to provide the right educational opportunities for young people.

Nearly a decade ago, Laanui, one of fewer than 20 Pacific Islanders in the FBI agent ranks, wanted to bring an Adopt-a-School program to his home state. The Bureau began the national outreach initiative in 1994 to help young people stay away from crime and drugs while learning core values that would make them good citizens. Since then, agents and other FBI employees around the country have volunteered thousands of hours to make a positive impact on the lives of youngsters in predominantly disadvantaged neighborhoods.

FBI Special Agent Arnold Laanui stands outside Waipahu High School in Honolulu, where he helped start the Honolulu Division's Adopt-a-School program in 2009.

In 2009, Special Agent Arnold Laanui helped establish the FBI Honolulu Division’s Adopt-a-School program at Waipahu High School. Since then, one of the state’s most troubled schools has undergone a renaissance.

To determine which Hawaiian school would be best served, in 2009 Laanui researched Oahu communities with the highest crime rates. The neighborhood of Waipahu, encompassing approximately a four-square-mile area not far from the high-rise resorts and tourist beaches of Waikiki, showed surprising statistics.

“The data revealed that nearly half of the juvenile criminals in the state of Hawaii were coming out of that one area,” Laanui said. “That one little plot of land represented the most crime-ridden neighborhood in the state.”

Another fact was also of interest: From 2008 to 2010, nearly half the students at Waipahu High School had failed to graduate on time. Only 52 percent of the students who had entered the school as freshmen during those years had graduated four years later. Did the other 48 percent, having dropped out, resort to criminal activity because there were few other options? If you could design a program to keep those youngsters in school, engaged, and graduating on time, wouldn’t that result in lowering the community’s crime rate?

Laanui had his school—“in the toughest neighborhood in Hawaii”—and a clear vision: “From the start,” he said, “the Adopt-a-School program was a very deliberate attempt to re-engineer an entire neighborhood really at its core.”

“From the start, the Adopt-a-School program was a very deliberate attempt to re-engineer an entire neighborhood really at its core.”

Arnold Laanui, special agent, FBI Honolulu
The FBI's Honolulu Division implemented its Adopt-a-School program nearly a decade ago at what was then an at-risk high school in a troubled neighborhood. Today, the program is showing tangible, measurable results that show lower rates of drug use and truancy at the school. Transcript | Download

Waipahu High School was full of energy on a recent spring morning as young people made their way to and from class. Motivational words—Ambition, Courage, Perseverance—appear on stairwells, and students’ murals grace many of the walls. Today, the school is a safe place for young people to learn and explore, but that was not always the case.

“When I first became a police officer in 2000,” said Anson “Kaipo” Paiva, a member of the Honolulu Police Department, “Waipahu was a completely different neighborhood. There was high crime, a lot of truancy. In certain areas, officers could not go in alone. Two officers would service a 9-1-1 call, and one would stay outside and watch the cars to make sure they weren’t vandalized.”

Officer Kaipo, as he is now fondly known to the many Waipahu students he teaches and counsels, was a patrol officer back then. When police showed up in the neighborhood, kids would run. Officers regularly responded to the high school for brawls and drug busts. “Pretty much every time you got called there,” he said, “somebody would get arrested.”

After eight years, Officer Kaipo left patrol and joined the community policing team. Now, instead of arresting kids, he gets to mentor them through a number of initiatives, including the Adopt-a-School program.

“Showing these kids what they’re capable of is an eye-opening experience for them,” he said. “When they start accepting that what they can do is great, and they can actually create the community they want, it changes everything.”

An Immersive Experience

The FBI Honolulu Division's Adopt-a-School program brings together students from two different high schools to solve a mock kidnapping case, culminating in a dig at a fictional crime scene, as seen in this 360-degree video. The mock-investigation is part of a two-day field training exercise called PROVE (Practical Observation and Vocational Experience). Best viewed on laptop or desktop. Transcript | Download

Standing at the front of the classroom, Laanui addresses his students as he always does, with the same initial greeting, spoken in native Hawaiian: “Kings and queens of Waipahu, let’s begin.”

“All learners, all students want to be treated with a certain degree of respect,” he said, and that simple greeting confers not only respect but expectation. Today’s lesson—leading up to the following week’s mock investigation and dig—is about how to sketch a crime scene. After classroom instruction, the junior and senior boys and girls head outdoors where shell casings, items of clothing, and other pieces of “evidence” have been planted. They learn to work together to preserve the scene, to take notes and measurements, and to sketch what they have found, just as FBI investigators would.

After Laanui chose Waipahu High School for the Adopt-a-School program in 2009—with the enthusiastic support of the school’s principal—he spent a year writing curriculum for the program that aligned with Hawaii Department of Education standards. (That process made him realize he needed more than the law degree he had earned on his way to becoming an FBI agent, and he went on to earn a doctorate in education.)

“We put together a curriculum based on sound educational philosophy,” Laanui said. Lessons were designed around five general principals, what Laanui calls “the Five Ps”—purpose, passion, persistence, practice, and positivism.

Waipahu’s Adopt-a-School program has two main components. Eligible ninth-graders—averaging more than 100 students per year—can participate in a Leader Lab where they receive blocks of instruction on ethics, relationships, strategies for success, and leadership. They also work in teams to design projects for the benefit of the school and the neighborhood. The Leader Lab concludes with a “Shark Tank”-like presentation where student teams “sell” their projects to community leaders who help fund the best ideas.

If those freshmen express a career interest in the criminal justice system, as juniors and seniors they can enroll in the school’s Academy of Law and Justice Administration, which Laanui helped to establish. There, rather than take a physics class, students might take forensic science. Instead of classic history, they might study social justice or criminology and law. “The academy is geared toward inspiring the future detectives, special agents, attorneys, and judges of Hawaii,” Laanui said.

In addition, the Honolulu Police Department sponsors a program for sixth-graders called Real and Powerful, better known as RAP. Administered by Officer Kaipo, RAP provides guidance on dealing with bullying, cyberbullying, drugs, peer pressure, and other topics.

Taken together, starting in sixth-grade students are exposed to core messages about how to make good choices, how to set goals and achieve them, and how to plan for a successful future that involves giving something back to the community. “We keep injecting positive messages and building positive relationships with people,” Officer Kaipo said. “Eventually, the only thing that can happen is positive.”

“Showing these kids what they’re capable of is an eye-opening experience for them. When they start accepting that what they can do is great, and they can actually create the community they want, it changes everything.”

Anson “Kaipo” Paiva, community policing team, Honolulu Police Department

Anson “Kaipo” Paiva, a member of the Honolulu Police Department’s community policing team, helps a Waipahu High School freshman prepare for a presentation to community leaders.
Anson “Kaipo” Paiva, a member of the Honolulu Police Department’s community policing team, helps a Waipahu High School freshman in the Adopt-a-School program as he prepares to make a presentation in a “Shark Tank”-like competition. Student teams “sell” projects to benefit the school and the neighborhood to community leaders, who act as judges and help fund the best ideas.
Community leaders attend a Waipahu High School presentation by freshmen students in the Adopt-a-School program.

Changing the culture of a school—especially one that had historically underperformed—does not happen overnight. Laanui understood that a long-term commitment was required. So did Waipahu High School’s new principal in 2009. Keith Hayashi immediately saw the potential of the Adopt-a-School program and encouraged Laanui to include 120 students in the inaugural cohort, far more than Laanui had planned for—and a majority of those students were at high risk for dropping out.

In those early years, the program included a trust-building ropes course held off campus where students and teachers needed to work together to complete a physically demanding set of obstacles. Part of the course involved scaling a 10-foot wall.

“Students were helping each other, hoisting each other up, jumping up. They got over,” Hayashi remembered. “Some of the teachers struggled, as I would have, and the kids helped them, not only physically, but they encouraged them to try.”

Eventually, everyone made it over the wall, and the students and teachers began to see each other in a different way, Hayashi said. “I think that was the beginning of a really great journey for us at Waipahu.”

Although he credits the students, teachers, parents, school administrators, and community advocates for their hard work over many years in transforming the school, Hayashi has special praise for Laanui. “He has helped to build a culture at our school where students take care of each other,” the principal said. “Teachers and students look at each other with mutual respect. They work together. Adopt-a-School has made a difference.”

“We keep injecting positive messages and building positive relationships with people. Eventually, the only thing that can happen is positive.”

Anson “Kaipo” Paiva, community policing team, Honolulu Police Department

Statistically speaking, only about 40 of the initial 120 Adopt-A-School freshmen were on track to remain in school by the start of their junior year. But a combination of factors—the ropes course, the message of empowerment, Laanui’s engaging curriculum and his commitment—made something special happen.

“Our cohort had the largest matriculation rate and persistence rate into the sophomore year,” Laanui said. “When they continued to persist into their junior year, we didn’t realize we were influencing the culture on the entire campus, because the students who were least likely to succeed were persisting, and not only persisting but persisting at a very high and successful rate. That seed,” he said, “was a contagion that started to spread throughout the entire campus.”

Today, the incidence of violence and drug use on campus is down by more than 50 percent. Truancy and suspension rates have dropped by more than 50 percent as well. “As a result,” Laanui explained, “I see an almost one-to-one match in the reduction of juvenile delinquency rates in the neighborhood—a more than 50 percent reduction, which I anticipate will result in a dramatic reduction in adult criminality well into the future.”

Special Agent Arnold Laanui, community advocate Lorrie Kanno, and Honolulu Police Department officer Anson “Kaipo” Paiva made long-term commitments to the FBI Honolulu Division’s Adopt-a-School program at Waipahu High School.

The FBI Honolulu Division’s Adopt-a-School program at Waipahu High School has been so successful because a core group of individuals—including (from left) Special Agent Arnold Laanui, community advocate Lorrie Kanno, and Honolulu Police Department officer Anson “Kaipo” Paiva—are among those who made a long-term commitment to the program.

Simply put, “the neighborhood has changed because the school has changed,” he said. “What we are seeing now that we are entering our eighth year in the program is a renaissance in the neighborhood, and it’s our former students that are leading a lot of that change. And many of those students,” he pointed out, “were on a track to drop out of school.”

The dig site at the University of Hawaii’s West Oahu Campus has revealed a second skeleton, along with telling evidence. The excavation is part of the Adopt-a-School program’s two-day field exercise called PROVE—Practical Observation and Vocational Experience.

“It is basically an attempt to mimic a multi-jurisdictional criminal investigation,” Laanui said. Months earlier, Laanui—with the help of a University of Hawaii forensic anthropology professor—buried two authentic lab skeletons, along with evidence including a murder weapon, at the site. Then Laanui crafted a crime scenario revolving around the sale of fake marijuana online and a double kidnapping involving students from Waipahu High School and Sacred Hearts Academy, a private girls’ school on Oahu.

FBI Honolulu Adopt-a-School: Sacred Hearts Academy Students
Students from Sacred Hearts Academy participating in FBI Honolulu’s Adopt-a-School program in Hawaii learn how to process a mock crime scene.
FBI Honolulu Adopt-a-School: Evidence Scene Sketch
Prior to beginning a two-day field exercise called PROVE—Practical Observation and Vocational Experience—Special Agent Arnold Laanui “deputizes” students from Sacred Hearts Academy in Hawaii. The students will need to apply the forensic skills they have learned throughout the year to solve a mock kidnapping case that has all the earmarks of a real law enforcement investigation. Among the skills required are collecting and processing evidence and crime-scene sketching. The FBI Honolulu Citizen’s Academy Alumni Association (HNCAAA) has been a strong supporter of the Adopt-a-School program.

Waipahu students in the Academy of Law and Justice Administration take part in the PROVE project to apply what they have learned throughout the year—interviewing witnesses, creating a timeline of events, conducting a search, crime-scene sketching and photography, gathering evidence, and taking comprehensive notes.

There is also an added wrinkle. Laanui has been teaching the same blocks of instruction at Sacred Hearts Academy, and both schools’ students must work together to solve the crime.

“The project has been deliberately designed so that their investigations intersect,” he said, “and only by collaborating and cooperating with each other—which is often the way it works in the real world—are they able to solve the case.”

At the dig site, Waipahu students work alongside their counterparts from Sacred Hearts, whom they have just met in person that morning. Although they come from significantly different cultural, social, and economic backgrounds, the students quickly form a partnership.

“You’ve got to work together as a team,” said Kendrik Dang, a junior at Waipahu High School. “It’s always a team effort.” Dang, who had never met an FBI agent before joining the Adopt-a-School program, said the experience—including the PROVE Project—makes him want to pursue a career in criminal justice.

After her experience working with Laanui, Sacred Hearts senior Angelina Gomes said she, too, “might seriously consider a career in law enforcement or maybe the FBI.” Gomes likened the investigative process to a puzzle where all the clues fit together to solve the crime. “What’s important,” she said, “is not to have a closed mind and always think of a lot of possibilities.”

For Waipahu High School, the possibilities seem endless.

Principal Hayashi pointed to the school’s successes: the significant reduction in truancy, suspensions, and behavioral issues, the increase in academic achievement, on-time graduation, and the overall positive culture at the school. He noted that Waipahu teachers are making a “huge” statement by sending their own children to the school, which did not always happen. “My daughter is a junior here,” he said, “and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

As for Laanui, he is proud of what the Adopt-a-School program has accomplished. “You can’t deny the numbers,” he said. “You have this intervention and you reduce crime by more than 50 percent.”

“The research in the area of truancy is clear,” he added. “If you have absenteeism and behavioral and conduct issues, these are the conditions in middle school that contribute to dropouts. Unless you come up with a better program that will engage students—so that they build better relationships with each other and with their teachers—then learning is not going to continue.” If learning does not continue, he said, “students become disengaged, turn to truancy, truancy leads to delinquency, delinquency leads to adult criminality, and that can be multi-generational.”

That unfortunate chain of events occurs in countless schools around the country, turning them into dropout factories. Could Hawaii’s Adopt-a-School model work at other schools as well as it has at Waipahu High School?

Laanui believes it can, as long as there is a strong partnership between law enforcement, the school, the community, and dedicated individuals who are willing to make a long-term commitment. “By strategically targeting truancy,” he said, “you can short-circuit what will eventually become adult criminality. The return on investment we get out of a program like this is incredibly high.”

At Waipahu High School, the incidence of violence and drug use on campus is down by more than 50 percent. Truancy and suspension rates have also dropped by more than 50 percent.