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Are Hawaii Schools Safe?


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Preparing for the Unexpected

Kids bring home the lessons they learn at school. But is violence one of them?

Five bells rang out the morning of December 11, 2012, at Waipahu Intermediate School. “This is a lockdown. This is not a drill,” vice principal Gary Fujii announced over the intercom. Police had stopped by to say that a suspicious man, carrying a hammer, was walking near school grounds. Fujii assembled an emergency response team. Teachers secured their doors and windows from the inside and waited for the all clear.

This is the most dramatic aspect of school safety—emergency preparedness for some external threat, whether from a shooter or a tsunami. One of the primary ways schools respond to external threats is with lockdowns and evacuations. In a lockdown, school officials think students are safer contained inside the school grounds; in an evacuation, students are safer in another location.

Every Hawaii school has an emergency-procedures guide that is site specific, including many different emergency scenarios. “We can’t give them a cookie cutter. They have to think: What are my threats? What are my vulnerabilities?” says Mark Behrens, Hawaii Department of Education’s director of safety, security and emergency preparedness. For example, Waianae High School sits right on the beach, so it has detailed tsunami evacuation plans. But Nanakuli High and Intermediate School, right down the road, addresses the tsunami in terms of people evacuating to the location, because it’s situated on high ground.

Every school is required to complete a school inspection program yearly, including a safety assessment and drill. School emergency plans aren’t published online for security reasons, so it falls to parents to go to schools and obtain the information.

Despite these plans and the DOE-provided checklists of what to do in various scenarios—exhaustive lists, in fact—schools aren’t always aware of all the resources they have at their disposal.

For example, in the Waipahu lockdown, one of the requirements was to inform parents of the situation. Fujii said he drafted a letter to send home with the kids. Had the lockdown occurred through the end of the school day, a written letter wouldn’t have been effective against a wave of parents trying to collect their children.

School security chief Behrens says there is a mass phone messaging system through which all parents can be contacted, and although all schools have access to it, not all of them are using it.

“We have 256 schools and we’ve had mass messaging for four years. It’s very simple, [schools] just need to make the effort,” says Behrens.

After Sandy Hook, Behrens says the DOE made it a requirement that all schools set up their messaging systems for parents.


Day-to-Day Safety

There is no way to anticipate random violence, only ways to safeguard children in the event that it does happen. In Hawaii, the statewide data is encouraging.

“The state of Hawaii is one of only 12 states that’s never had an active shooter in our schools,” says Behrens. Hawaii’s sole school district is also the 10th largest in the country. Most comparably sized Mainland districts have armed police forces on school grounds during school hours, he says.

Urban Oahu, on the other hand, doesn’t have any police officers in schools, just school security attendants. Curiously, most of the rural high schools on the Neighbor Islands have dedicated police officers on school grounds, thanks to a federal grant that aims to shrink response time for police in rural areas.

“Everybody agrees that it’s ideal to have [police officers] at high school and middle school, but it comes to funding. We’ve got 40-something high schools just on Oahu,” says Behrens.

According to the Honolulu Police Department, beat officers establish regular interaction with schools in a given community. The most common calls for a police officer on campus are for thefts, assaults, harassment and criminal property damage—such as graffiti, truancy and trespassing. But the security is only as good as the relationship between the school leaders, such as the principal and those beat cops.

“We’re trying to make a distinction between the Sandy Hook incident and 90 percent of other school shooters. Ninety percent of school shootings are by a student or someone with a connection to the school. What’s significant about that is we have a little more control.”


Inside Job

We tend to think about school safety in terms of external threats like the Sandy Hook tragedy. But the most immediate threat is internal: Bullying.

“Kids have a problem knowing when to stop,” says Suzanne Mulcahy, superintendent of the Kailua-Kalaheo district. While a principal at Kailua Intermediate, Mulcahy reduced bullying in her school by 71 percent between 2004 and 2010. “It’s usually not one person bullying another. Usually someone is bullying and others will join in. Then, the bully is performing because they’re being watched.”

How pervasive is bullying? According to the DOE, bullying has increased from under 600 incidents in the 2010-2011 school year to more than 700 last year.

And about 47 percent of Hawaii teachers said that students’ misbehavior interfered with their ability to teach, based on a 2011 Indicators of School Crime and Safety report, released by the National Association of Education Statistics and the Department of Justice. That put Hawaii’s numbers among the worst in the country.

Yearly statewide reporting of misconduct also gives us a sense of what’s going on in classrooms. The DOE has rules and options for discipline. Some are cut and dried: If a student brings a gun on campus, he is dismissed from school for a calendar year. But bullying is a class B offense, with 16 options for disciplinary action, ranging from after-school detention to disciplinary transfer.

Since 1999, the highest number of incidents has involved class D misconduct, which is disorderly conduct and insubordination. At its high, in the year 1999-2000 there were 68 incidents per 1,000 students. In 2009-10, the last year for which data was available, it was 35 per 1,000, a new low.

Violent misconduct, class A, has been the second-highest category each year since 1999. That number has stayed fairly constant, with a high of 20 incidents per 1,000 students in 2006-’07 and the most recent data showing 14 incidents per 1,000 students in 2009-’10.

This data seems to indicate Hawaii’s schools aren’t unsafe, but chaotic.

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