On Sept. 26, a 10-year-old boy reported that a man attempted to grab him while he was walking home from his school in Pukalani, Maui.

The man, who according to reports was balding with a tribal tattoo on his right arm, told the boy, “come here,” before the child was able to break free and run away. Police haven’t identified a suspect.

That was on a Friday. The following Monday, the school —Pukalani Elementary — sent a generic “stranger danger” letter home to parents, with no specific reference to the incident. Maui police classified the case as an attempted kidnapping later that day.

pukalani maui abduction sketch suspect

A sketch of the suspect believed to have attempted to kidnap a 10-year-old boy in Pukalani in September 2014.

Maui Police Department

It was one of several recent “stranger danger” incidents statewide, most of them on Oahu. The first reportedly occurred Sept. 18 near Keoneula Elementary in Ewa Beach, followed by two in the Leeward Oahu area. 

Honolulu police are now investigating the two latest incidents: attempted abductions allegedly involving students from Kahaluu Elementary and Leilehua High on Oct. 1 and 2, respectively. Both schools notified parents via phone of the incidents on the days they occurred, then sent letters home, too. Letters were also sent home to parents following the various incidents.

Most of the Oahu incidents were also promptly reported by local media outlets.

But on Maui, schools’ handling of information about the incidents — what details were released, and when — has some parents wondering whether they can trust the schools to keep them abreast of situations that could jeopardize their children’s safety.

It’s raising questions about whether the Department of Education’s communication policies are designed in kids’ best interest, particularly on neighbor islands where word doesn’t travel as quickly. 

If it weren’t for reports that surfaced late the next week on news sites such as MAUIWatch, it’s unclear whether many Maui parents — aside from those with children at Pukalani — would have ever known that the incident occurred. 

“Why didn’t the schools notify parents? Why am I finding this out on social media?” Tiffany Presley Mancao, whose 6-year-old daughter attends the nearby Waihee Elementary, asked Civil Beat after hearing about the Friday incident a week later. “Every parent should have known, every school should have notified the parents. It’s unacceptable.”

Mancao was one of more than a dozen Maui parents who commented on news posts demanding to know why their kids’ schools didn’t inform them of the incident. 

pukalani maui attempted abduction arm

The suspect in the Pukalani case is said to have a tribal tattoo on his arm.

Maui Police Department

“I just heard about it through maui mommies page :/,” wrote Reyshell Magsayo on the MAUIWatch Facebook news post. “I’m soo upset because Yakira didn’t bring home any note regarding this incident!!!!! I’m like WTF only now I hear about it and it happened last week! I’m gonna ask her teacher today why I haven’t received anything.”

“They definitely should have told all parents right away,” wrote Lisa Marie Nowacky. “Even if they were waiting for an investigation. I understand not wanting to cause a panic, but there’s always that underlying WHAT IF factor. And as parents, we deserve to always know about this kind of stuff even if nothing happened.”

Pukalani Elementary only notified parents that police had classified the case as an attempted abduction two days after the classification — via an automated phone call. The school sent parents formal letter notifications with the news a day after that. Other Maui schools didn’t notify their parents about the attempted kidnapping near Pukalani until days after it was reported in the media. 

DOE spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz said such notifications are typically limited to the parents of children at schools directly involved in the incidents. A school such as Waihee Elementary, a half-hour drive west of Pukalani, wouldn’t be expected to inform its parents that an attempted kidnapping occurred near a neighboring school. 

The DOE informs “our school parents about school-related incidents” — those that interrupt classes or involve suspicious activity as reported to the school, according to Dela Cruz.

That practice is standard procedure, she said, though it isn’t codified in department policy. She said communications on Maui following the Pukalani incident were in line with standard protocol, noting that the time at which schools notify parents often depends on how quickly police classify the cases.

Schools are not supposed to act alone; they have to coordinate any parent notifications with the DOE’s communications office, which operates out of the state office.

The letter Kathleen Dimino, Pukalani’s principal, sent home to parents the Monday after the Friday incident occurred didn’t notify them that a boy was nearly abducted near campus.

“School children in Hawaii have reported incidents of being approached by strangers while walking to and from school,” the letter said. “The safety of your children is of the utmost importance to us. We are sending this letter to you as a precaution, and to encourage you to speak to your child about ‘stranger danger,’ and about how to keep safe when coming to school and when walking home.” 

The rest of the letter contained a bullet point list with safety guidelines.

It wasn’t until Wednesday, two days later, that Dimino sent parents an automated voice message announcing what happened near Pukalani: “Several schools have recently reported concerns about strangers attempting to entice children,” the message said. “Police are investigating several cases on Oahu and now, Maui police are investigating an attempted kidnapping case involving a Pukalani school student that occurred off-campus.”

Mancao said she called Waihee Elementary’s principal, Lori Yatsushiro, the instant she read the news and was told that Yatsushiro had known about the incident for days but couldn’t notify parents without approval from the DOE communications office.

Yatsushiro didn’t respond to requests for comment. Neither did Alvin Shima, superintendent for most of Maui’s schools. 

“To me what’s worst is that we have somebody who’s out there … grabbing kids and preying on kids last Friday,” said Mancao, who did receive a phone notification a week after the incident. “We should’ve gotten that letter first thing Monday.”

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