If there was any bit of relief from the recent missile alert scare for families in Hawaii, it was that it took place on a Saturday morning when many kids were at home.

But what would have happened if the alert had occurred during school hours?

It’s a question that has weighed on the minds of educators and parents in the aftermath of the bizarre blunder  that took 38 minutes to officially correct and caused Hawaii state officials to scramble to provide answers and get their messaging straight.

Andy Jones, an AP English teacher at Radford High, was in his school classroom Saturday morning preparing materials for the coming week. When he heard his phone buzz from the alert, he didn’t immediately reach for it, thinking it was a standard tsunami warning drill, but eventually read the message.

Radford High School. 22 july 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
AP English teacher Andy Jones was working at Radford High School on Saturday when the missile alert was sent. If it had happened during the week, “it would have just been pandemonium,” he said. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“The first thought that went through my mind was, this has to be a mistake or a very weird prank,” he said.

Despite this initial reaction, Jones said he told himself the alert could be real.

“I was like a deer in the headlights,” he said. “I honestly couldn’t remember how to turn on the TV,” he recalled, thinking that’s what he should do next.

When he noticed no unusual reports on TV, he remained calm.

Teacher Andy Jones in a 2016 photo in his Radford High classroom. Photo courtesy Andy Jones

“As a 52-year-old man, I have enough experience in the world to know if there was a bomb going off in the world, it wouldn’t be business as usual on the TV,” he said.

It dawned on Jones that the initial confusion and uncertainty he felt could have been more consequential had the mistake happened a day earlier, with kids in class.

“What if 1,300 student cellphones went off (buzzing) from the same message? It would have just been pandemonium,” he said.

Recalling his confusion over turning on the TV, he added, “If an entire school population reacts in the same way, everybody’s panicking to one extent and if there aren’t procedures in place, then it really could be a big mess.”

DOE Procedures

The Hawaii Department of Education, which encompasses 256 public schools, 36 public charter schools, 22,000 staff members and 179,000 students, sent home letters to parents Tuesday reassuring them that the schools are instructed to hold emergency drills to prepare students and staff in emergency situations.

The department’s guidance is to “shelter-in-place,” meaning to stay indoors wherever you are.

In a separate memorandum sent to principals and complex area superintendents, school superintendent Christina Kishimoto said the “ideal locations” for such coverage are places like cafeterias, libraries, gyms, music band rooms and basement offices.

“Principals are ultimately responsible to ensure their schools are properly resourced and prepared for emergency situations,” she wrote.

In the letter sent home to parents, Kishimoto said parents are advised, in a real situation, to “avoid picking up their children at school.”

“While it is extremely difficult to adhere to this advisement, please know this this is the best interest of your children,” she wrote.

Some parents, however, take exception to this instruction.

Dawn Sakaue with her first-grade son, Karter Damian. The photo was taken several feet away from her parents’ home in Hawaii Kai. In the background is the back of Kamiloiki Elementary School. Courtesy Dawn Sakaue

“Let me have my child, and let me pick them up,” said Dawn Sakaue, whose first-grader attends Kamiloiki Elementary in Hawaii Kai.

The school as far back as November conducted an emergency drill with students in the context of a nuclear drill.

They are instructed, in the event of an actual emergency, to run as fast as they can to the school cafeteria on the first floor.

But Sakaue has instructed her 7-year-old son to respond differently.

“What I told him to do and what he clearly understands is, when he hears that siren, to run as fast as he can, across the field to grandma and grandpa’s house,” she said, noting how nearby this house is and how she would meet her son halfway on the field.

DOE spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz, responding in an email, wrote that the “the priority is safety.”

“With regard to a ballistic missile threat, there is no black-and-white answer to every scenario that could possibly occur within the 15 minutes that we are advised to Get Inside, Stay inside, and Stay Tuned,” she wrote, referring to HEMA’s guidance.

“We trust our school principals and teachers to make the right decisions with the best interest of the students and their families in mind.”

Not All Students Were Home

Some students were at school-sponsored activities Saturday.

Many private and public high school students from around the state were gathered at a speech and debate tournament at the Parker School on Hawaii Island.

Michał Nowicki, a math teacher at University Lab School, a public charter, accompanied about 20 speech and debate students to the event.

Just as HEMA’s missile alert was issued, the first round of competition was set to begin. He noticed something was off when he walked into a classroom to watch a competition and saw students staring down at their phones.

“The students seemed really unsettled and confused,” he said. But the student debaters all had the same idea to head to the school cafeteria. That seemed to be the general consensus, he said, since it was a central location and general gathering place for competitors.

“Many were shaking and many were crying,” Nowicki recalled.

Within several minutes, the uncertainty had subsided, because cross-checking on smartphones revealed the alert to be a false alarm, well before the state issued an official follow-up correcting its initial message.

The missile scare quickly found its way into the competition. A student, during a speech delivering arguments on the topic of “the fragility of life” folded the incident into her presentation.

“We’ve all experienced today, how fragile and fleeting our lives can be,” she said.

At the University of Hawaii Manoa, where about 4,000 students live in student housing, some students were seen running across campus Saturday morning.

While the campus has no active fallout shelter, it houses buildings that once bore old signs that are “relics of the Cold War and no longer are shelters,” according to university spokesman Dan Meisenzahl.

The signs were taken down that afternoon, he said.

In a letter sent to the campus community this week, UH President David Lassner wrote, “Improved plans will include providing crystal clear instructions in advance and during an event on where to shelter.”

“Hopefully we will see a peaceful de-escalation of today’s global tensions, and these plans will never be needed in reality.”

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