The last day of school is supposed to be for games and other lighthearted activities. Instead, Sarah Kern found herself trying to help her seventh grade class process what had happened after another mass school shooting on the mainland.
The science teacher at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School on Kauai said she kept her words short, adding that it’s important to provide a space for students to share their feelings and ask questions.
“Even if I might not have the answers, I can reassure them the best I can,” Kern said.
The elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 students and two teachers in a fourth-grade class last Tuesday has prompted a new round of soul-searching and debate over school safety in Hawaii.
Lawmakers and education officials pointed out that the Aloha State already has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation, as well as a relatively low rate of gun violence.
But schools in the islands have faced threats in recent years, and some say it’s time to review the open nature of most campuses and to increase security measures, including more school resource officers.
“It’s unfortunate,” Senate President Ron Kouchi said. “But it seems clear from what is happening across the country that it’s something we need to look for, and have personnel prepared to ensure the safety of those who are going into the buildings.”
In 2018, Mililani High School was placed under lockdown due to reports of nearby gunfire. Last year Kaimuki High School had to lock down due to an alleged verbal threat on social media. And more recently a student was arrested for bringing a gun to the Kamehameha Schools Keaau campus.
Board of Education Chair Catherine Payne said that Hawaii’s public schools can’t be secured like the mainland schools because of the open campuses. She said the education department had implemented “active shooter” training every year but schools fell out of practice during Covid-19 pandemic closures.
Open campuses are schools where there are no controlled entrances and exits.
“We don’t have the capacity right now to keep a person off our campus,” Payne said. “If somebody came running onto the campus with a gun or a high-power military weapon, it would be very hard to stop them.”
Senate leadership plans to reach out to the Department of Education to schedule a meeting on its safety policies, a spokesman said.
However, officials offered few details about potential changes, and there has traditionally been little political will in Hawaii for adopting stricter safety protocols at schools.
In 2018, after a gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, Hawaii legislators considered a bill calling for the state Department of Education to retrofit all classroom doors with interior locks and all schools with intercom systems.
But Senate Bill 2576 died during the session, and there haven’t been any more recent efforts to beef up security in schools.
House Speaker Scott Saiki said he would prefer that the DOE take the initiative to create and update its own safety procedures and ask the Legislature for funds, if needed.
Hawaii’s public schools have conducted vulnerability assessments; increased surveillance and security on campuses; and implemented safety plans, including threat response training and active shooter drills, officials said.
DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said all 257 public schools are required to have emergency action plans with five drills each per school year. She noted the drills encompassed a variety of scenarios including lockdown, shelter-in-place, tsunami, earthquake and evacuation.
“The department also continues to prioritize the social and emotional well-being of students — through various professional development opportunities on trauma-informed education and social emotional learning — to ensure that all students feel safe and supported at school,” she said in an emailed statement.
Some neighbor island schools have beefed up security, including on-campus resource officers. But the Honolulu Police Department has none stationed at schools on Oahu, according to spokeswoman Michelle Yu.
The Big Island has about eight school resource officers stationed at middle schools as part of an initiative funded by a federal grant, Hawaii Police Department Maj. John Briski said.
“The primary mission for the program was to bring a community policing philosophy to the schools, being a positive role model for students, adding some stability for the staff and faculty, and building partnerships with the community,” Briski said.
McKinley High School Principal Ron Okamura said he’s been a proponent of stationing police officers at the Oahu school, adding that an open campus system allows anyone to walk in and out.
“Even if we do have fences, it doesn’t stop someone from jumping over or bullets flying through,” Okamura said.
Cindy Reves, who teaches at McKinley High, said she would hate to see fences surrounding the campus.
“We do drills, so we have procedures in place,” Reves said. “Something I love about my classroom is that it has a whole wall of windows, has two doors and I love it, but it’s open.”
But Carolina Gibson, whose daughter goes to Kaaawa Elementary School on Windward Oahu, believes students “shouldn’t have to do these drills.”
Last year the school had to go on lockdown because of a report that a man had a gun nearby.
“Everybody was under their desks, but it was terrifying,” Gibson said. “For me, it’s like why are we having to terrify our children versus changing the way things are. This was nothing I ever grew up with.”
She said Hawaii is safer compared to other states.
According to a 2021 active shooter incident report, Arizona, Colorado, Tennessee, Indiana and Michigan suffered the highest casualties from active shooters. Hawaii did not make the list.
Rep. Amy Perruso, a former Mililani High teacher, said the best preventive measure is having strict gun control laws.
“Drills at the back end are not going to help our kids,” Perruso said. “There is still going to be damage and loss of life. There always has been.”
“It’s not as though those teachers don’t have drills. They’ve been preparing for this,” she added. “Kids are being traumatized all over the continental United States by constant drilling for active shooters.”
Wendy Nakasone-Kalani, president of the advocacy group Parents For Public Schools in Hawaii, said the DOE has made progress. She said the department created an app for students to report bullying or other “harmful behaviors.” She added that HPD has Crimestoppers.
She said she feels her daughter is safe at school because the teachers will protect students, although she believes parents should also be trained and given information and resources on how to handle threatening situations.
“This doesn’t necessarily have to come from the school — it could/should come from law enforcement and other subject matter experts,” Nakasone-Kalani said in an email.
“School safety is not only for Hawaii’s leaders — parents, businesses, family and community members also play a vital role in keeping schools safe, as well,” she continued. “There is still much work to be done — keeping our Keiki safe is a community effort.”