How Much Should People Know About A School’s Safety Plan? Officials Are Reluctant To Reveal Too Much | #schoolsaftey

The Department of Education is at odds with the teachers union and some Lahaina parents over how much information the public should have access to when it comes to safety plans.

In the aftermath of the Aug. 8 Maui fires, parents and community members from Lahaina had a clear message for the Department of Education: show us your plan to keep students safe in the future. 

Schools had not been in session on the day of the fire, and concerns abounded about how the DOE would have handled a mass evacuation if students had been on campus. 

To address those worries, legislators in the House introduced a bill this session to increase DOE transparency around campus safety plans and improve communication with parents not fluent in English.

Students were not on campus when fires destroyed the King Kamehameha III school in Lahaina, but parents and teachers expressed concern about how the DOE would have handled student safety in the disaster. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The bill is still moving forward, but after pushback from the DOE, Senate lawmakers stripped the bill’s requirement that the department publicly share school emergency action plans — a provision that parents and teachers have said is critical for ensuring children’s safety in a crisis. 

DOE officials have repeatedly stressed that publishing school safety plans, which detail campuses’ responses to active shooters, fires and other crises, could threaten campus security and provide important details to potential intruders. But the teachers union and concerned parents argue that providing details on school safety is crucial in rebuilding trust with families in Lahaina and across the state.

A Response To Community Concerns

House Bill 1837 began as a proposal of the House Working Group on Schools, which collaborated with school leaders and community members in the aftermath of the wildfires. Other recommendations included having the DOE provide robust academic and mental health support to Maui students and prioritizing fire safety and mitigation efforts on campuses.

“Emergency Action Plans for individual schools are not easily accessible to the public and state policymakers and should be made readily available,” the final report said. “The Schools Working Group strongly suggests the public should have an opportunity to assess these plans for their adequacy as it relates to student and staff safety and operational readiness.”

The House Working Group on Schools developed policy recommendations around school safety and emergency preparedness in the months following the Maui wildfires. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

In public meetings the working group held last fall, parents said they wanted proof that DOE could appropriately respond to a major disaster and asked for opportunities to review Lahaina schools’ safety plans.

“Why must we wait to put our kids in danger before somebody comes up with a plan to make sure our children are safe?” Pakalana Phillips, a mother of six children, said in a September meeting. 

In testimony supporting HB 1837, the Hawaii State Teachers Association said publishing campus emergency action plans could strengthen DOE’s relationship with school communities. While DOE had previously expressed a willingness to share its emergency plans during the pandemic, the union added, it later withdrew its offer.

“This did not foster trust that HIDOE would know what they were doing in that situation,” the union said in its written testimony.

Since the fires, DOE has struggled to re-enroll students in Maui schools, with some families expressing continued concerns about the environmental safety of the Lahaina campuses and their proximity to the burn zone. As of November, roughly 2,000 students were attending Lahaina schools, down from 3,000 students enrolled at the start of the year.

All schools have plans detailing their response to emergencies, said Max Mendoza, director of DOE’s Safety, Security and Emergency Preparedness Branch, in a recent hearing for the bill. The department is currently in the process of standardizing all plans and making them compliant with federal Emergency Management Agency guidelines, he added. 

But while plans are accessible to law enforcement and first responders, they should not be publicized, Mendoza said. If DOE published school-specific protocols and evacuation sites, potential shooters and other outsiders could use the information to their advantage, he added. 

“It’s basically a game book,” Mendoza said. “And we don’t want to reveal that to the entire public because it could get into the wrong hands where it could be used against us in an active threat.” 

Lahainaluna supporters welcome students back to their campus Monday, Oct. 16, 2023, in Lahaina. The school has been closed since the Aug. 8 fire and studying at other schools in Maui. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)Lahainaluna supporters welcome students back to their campus Monday, Oct. 16, 2023, in Lahaina. The school has been closed since the Aug. 8 fire and studying at other schools in Maui. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Students returned to Lahaina campuses in mid-October, but some parents still say DOE needs to provide more detail about schools’ emergency action plans. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Transparency around safety plans is also important for schools outside of Maui, said HSTA president Osa Tui Jr. When a chemical leak took place near a Kauai school in December, he said, police instructed students to evacuate the campus instead of following the school’s safety plan of sheltering in place. As a result, Tui added, students risked additional exposure to the chemicals because the school’s emergency plan wasn’t widely available.

“If these plans are not shared out, if these plans are not well thought out and the community doesn’t understand the plans, what’s the point?” Tui said. “We want to make sure the plans are shared.”

Kenneth Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services consulting firm, said most states and districts don’t publicize school emergency action plans. Some details should remain private for student safety, he added, and school evacuation sites and protocols are constantly evolving.

But, Trump said, he also understands parents’ concerns and their desire to know more about schools’ preparedness. 

“You don’t want to put out your entire plans, but you do want parents to know, if something happens, here’s how we’re going to get to you,” Trump said. 

Communication Is Crucial

Because school responses can quickly change during emergencies, administrators should have a detailed plan to communicate with parents, Trump said. Administrators should have multiple ways of reaching families in an emergency, he added, from email and text notifications to outreach over social media. 

In particular, schools should educate families about their reunification efforts in the case of an evacuation, said Emily Torres, a research area specialist for the National Center for School Safety. If schools are unable to reach families during emergencies, she added, parents should already know where they can find their children.

“It becomes important to have multiple emergency contacts for students and multiple ways to reach those folks,” Torres said. “Have those plans set up ahead of time and let parents know, and let caregivers know, what that reunification plan is going to be.”

HB 1837 mandates that schools develop and publish comprehensive communication plans detailing how campuses will reach families before, during and after emergencies. It also requires DOE to consider how it will reach families who do not speak English as a first language. 

While school emergency action plans already include communication protocols, the department doesn’t have the capacity to immediately translate information into multiple languages during emergencies, Superintendent Keith Hayashi said in his written testimony for the bill. 

Department of Education Superintendent Keith Hayashi testifies to the Senate Ways and Means Committee Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023,  in Honolulu. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)Department of Education Superintendent Keith Hayashi testifies to the Senate Ways and Means Committee Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023,  in Honolulu. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Superintendent Keith Hayashi testified that DOE has limited ability to translate communications into multiple languages during emergencies. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

DOE communications director Nanea Kalani said her office works with the Joint Information Center to disseminate information to parents during a crisis, but it can take one to two weeks for the department to translate written communication into the 15 languages most commonly used by families.

Rep. Trish La Chica, vice chair of the House Education Committee, said campus communication plans should provide valuable information about safety procedures and points of contact at families’ respective schools. But she believes the bill still fulfills its original purpose of reassuring families that schools will be prepared for disasters moving forward.

Tamara Paltin, a Maui County Council member and a mother of two students formerly enrolled at Lahaina Intermediate, enrolled her children in online classes after the August wildfires. While DOE and the Department of Transportation built a new evacuation route for Lahaina schools in October, Paltin said she remains concerned about her children’s ability to safely leave campus in the case of another emergency. 

Paltin added that she understands DOE’s concerns about releasing school emergency action plans in their entirety, but would like to see more detail about evacuation sites and reunification plans for families at Lahaina Intermediate.     

“If it’s safety, where do you draw the line?” Paltin said. “It feels like the kids have been through a lot.”

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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