Are Hawaii Schools Safe?

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.


“We think creating some guidelines, expectations and best practices for schools to share would be helpful,” says Cheri Nakamura, director of Hawaii-based educational advocacy group the He‘e Coalition.

The Department of Education, it seems, agrees.

“For the 2012-2013 school we’re implementing a comprehensive, long-term approach,” DOE deputy superintendent Ronn Nozoe said. “We’re having schools identify and select a research-based, anti-bullying and character program.”

Nozoe says behavior issues are dealt with on a student-by-student basis. He says in 85 percent of cases, student issues—whether bullying or academic—can be handled with minimal intervention. Schools are required to identify and monitor these interventions, big and small.

The devil is in the data, and data-analysis requirements are already in place, says Nozoe, with quarterly misconduct meetings with superintendents, and reviews done at the school level. “Schools are much more focused on the data and we’ve invested a bunch into it,” he says.

Next year, the plan adds a coordinator to each complex area to give additional support to address student issues, among them, kids who have discipline problems.

“We’re not doing this without a standard,” Nozoe says. “Schools have assessed, with principals, where each school is.”

Some educators warn that adopting an anti-bullying program isn’t enough.

“I’m not saying having a character education program would be detrimental,” Mulcahy says. But if leadership isn’t applying anti-bullying methods constantly and beyond the walls of the classroom, the best program in the world won’t work, she says. “They have to articulate a vision for how they’re going to use a program to improve the climate of the campus.”

DOE data details violence in schools serious enough to result in suspension. Violent incidents include assault, extortion, robbery, sexual offenses, terroristic threatening, dangerous weapons, firearms and harassment.

1999–2000                          0.9%                                                                               2,956
2004–2005                          1.4%                                                                               3,022
2006–2007                          1.9%                                                                               3,528*
2009–2010                          1.4%                                                                               2,541

*2006-07 school year had the decade’s highest number of violent incidents

Beating Bullying

Mulcahy said she took a multifaceted approach to fight the bullying in her school. The first step involved parents: At her first back-to-school night as principal in 2004, she announced that the school had a serious bullying issue and parents were part of the problem.

“I told them I couldn’t help the issue unless they were willing to join me,” she says. Parents’ behavior had to fall in line with her expectations, she said. “I said, telling racist jokes, making fun [of differences] leads to bullying. If you’re doing it at the dinner table, they’re bringing it in to school.” She got a standing ovation.

Involving parents also helped her stay on the vanguard, bringing to her attention issues like cyber bullying, which was unknown to her until parents printed out bullying messages kids were sending each other on the dominant social network site  at that time, MySpace.

Next, she increased the reporting of and response to bullying incidents by defining bullying behavior and promising to review every incident immediately. “I needed to see how much [bullying] was really going on, and then see what programs we could use to address it.”

Students learned to resolve their issues with the help of adults and students. Peer mentoring, in which specially trained kids mediate problems between their fellow students, provides more lasting reconciliations than adults negotiating compromises, said Mulcahy. She also drew on school counselors’ expertise in devising educational programs.

Mulcahy admits it was exhausting work. “It was a constant effort to keep it on [our] minds, model it and to do everything I could to bring parents in.”

The hardest part was changing expectations of student behavior. “Some adults think some amount of bullying is warranted to help a kid grow up. We have to make sure we aren’t buying into the lies of the parents in [previous] generations. It’s not just a rite of passage.”


Finding Alternatives

Some worry that things might get worse than day-to-day bullying. One of them is city prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro. “I think it’s only a matter of time before we see more violence in schools,” he says. He’s concerned that he’s seeing the number of kids being prosecuted going up, at increasingly younger ages. “We stop [adjudicating cases for juveniles] at 12 years old, but some are younger,” he says, such as a nine-year-old who recently robbed a store at knifepoint for ice cream.

Kaneshiro is championing a bill that would establish two alternative schools for at-risk youth, including those who have disciplinary problems. Alternative schools are nothing new on Oahu. But the island has only two schools—one for the central district, and one for windward. Kaneshiro is looking to add two more, one in town and the other on the leeward side.

“I was approached by businesspeople, saying that juveniles were costing them a lot of business,” Kaneshiro says. “I don’t think it’s productive to detain juveniles, but we don’t have alternatives.”

The High Core/Storefront School in Wahiawa is 46 years old, and plucks troubled kids out of mainstream classrooms. According to its coordinator, Colette Miyamoto-Kajiwara, there’s nothing magical about their teaching methods. But having a captive audience, extended hours, strict rules and a dedicated staff helps.

“Structure is real important,” says Miyamoto-Kajiwara. “They have to be there at 8 a.m. or they have to scrub toilets or run a lap.”

“We spend a lot of time teaching them about honesty, and truthfulness, and respect for other people’s thinking. Lots of kids are lacking a conscience,” Miyamoto-Kajiwara says. “We almost have to build in empathy for them to feel for someone else.”


Teaching Tolerance

“The majority of behavior problems in class is linked to student achievement—students who don’t feel successful in school,” says deputy superintendent Nozoe. “Locking them up and putting them on suspension isn’t the answer. We want to put them into an environment where they are successful.”

A new program, Philosophy for Kids Hawaii, is hoping to change the classroom environment by encouraging teachers to use philosophical methods. That means kids learning to ask the right questions, not memorizing information.

“We found that kids weren’t able to think through a problem,” says Chad Miller, 2012 Hawaii State Teacher of the Year and director of teacher education at UH Msnoa’s Uehiro Academy for Philosophy and Ethics in Education. “So often we’re focused on memorization of content. How much you know is how much content you can remember.”

Students work through their classroom lessons by identifying the biases they bring to new material and working to understand common ground. Those skills spill over into a better ability to negotiate conflicts in the schoolyard.

Miller says changing how teachers teach can improve safety. “We’re trying to create intellectually safe communities, to teach kids that their existence means something,” says Miller. “When kids are safe, they’re engaged, and when you put a test in front of them, they’re going to try. Safety is all about making them feel the learning is important to them.”


Community Matters

Whether it’s responding to emergencies or bullying, the troubles in our schools reflect the troubles of society. And how we, as a community, respond to these problems can be telling.

“Schools can’t do it alone, they need to reach out and talk to families and work with community organizations to share the responsibility of safe schools and respectful behavior,” says Nakamura of the He‘e Coalition.

The problem, some say, is expecting solutions to come from only one place.

“The DOE can do an excellent job with a multifaceted approach to safety, but it will fall short unless the entire school community links arms and says: ‘We are going to do this together,’” says Mulcahy. “When we stop depending on one agency, that’s when we are going to see things improve.”


Where do kids feel safe?

Every year, the Hawaii Department of Education surveys its students on how they feel about their school. One of the sections addresses student safety and wellbeing, asking students to agree or disagree with statements such as “My school is safe and clean,” and “I feel safe from bullying at school.” Here are the schools that ranked highest and lowest in this section, with the percentage of students who agreed that they felt safe at school.

1                                   Palisades Elementary School                                                                         96.5%
2                                  Manana Elementary School                                                                           96.4%
3                                  Keaukaha Elementary School                                                                        95.4%
4                                  Mililani Mauka Elementary School                                                              93.9%
5                                  Haleiwa Elementary School                                                                           93.7%

252                             Kahuku High & Intermediate School                                                           65.3%
253                             Lahaina intermediate School                                                                         63.6%
254                             Mokulele Elementary School                                                                         62.6%
255                             Aliamanu Middle School                                                                                 58.3%
256                             Maui Waena Intermediate School                                                                 47.4%