In the wake of another mass shooting at an American school, Hawaii educators are re-examining their safety procedures.

“When you go and research what other states have done, we are so far behind, just as far as having a comprehensive safety plan that addresses many different issues,” said Christina Russo, a science teacher at Campbell High School.

She is among those pushing for measures such as interior door locks in all public school classrooms. While the measure was introduced before last week’s school shooting in Florida, supporters have a renewed sense of urgency in light of the latest tragedy.

President William McKinley High School located at 1039 S. King Street. Honolulu, Hawaii. DOE. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Students outside William McKinley High School in Honolulu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Senate Bill 2576, which calls for the state Department of Education to retrofit all classroom doors with interior locks by Jan. 1, 2019, and all schools with an intercom system by 2020, was approved by the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday, a week after 14 students and three faculty members were killed by an armed former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

“I would think that with the events that happened in Florida … there is a sense of timeliness about this now,” said state Sen. Mike Gabbard, the bill’s sponsor.

As Superintendent Christina Kishimoto informed parents in a letter last week, the DOE currently requires that all 256 public schools have safety plans and conduct five emergency preparation drills a year, including lockdown exercises. Schools can also coordinate with county police departments to conduct “active shooter drills.”

State education officials are also now exploring “mass texting solutions as a communication method for our schools,” said Dann Carlson, assistant superintendent of the Office of School Facilities and Support Services.

“The Department’s current policies and protocols are robust,” he wrote in an email to Civil Beat. “Our Safety, Security and Emergency Preparedness branch is actively engaged with each school in establishing and maintaining their respective Emergency Action Plans.”

There’s no question “active shooter drills” are a common practice among DOE schools. For instance, Campbell High held a drill several years ago with the Honolulu Police Department in which a SWAT team shot blanks in the air and students ran into the nearest classroom. The SWAT team then ran door to door checking to see which doors were unlocked, according to teacher Kim Virtudazo.

But she said interior door locks could reduce potential exposure to a shooter in the event of a real-life situation.

“Inside, you could (lock a door) instantly without having to be in harm’s way,” Virtudazo said. “If I have to lock it from the outside … the minute I got outside, if there was a shooter, I’m in the crosshairs.”

In written testimony submitted early this month on the proposed legislation, the DOE requested the measure be deferred, saying that while it “recognizes the concern regarding retrofitting door locks that lock from the inside and installing intercom systems,” the department wants to “continue to plan, assess, and develop cost estimates.”

But the recent Florida shooting has compelled local educators and parents to further weigh in on the bill, which also calls for enhanced training for teachers, staff and students on violence prevention and emergency response.

“Students are taught to follow their teacher during an evacuation or fire drill but they aren’t taught simple things like how to report something suspicious or to turn off their ringers during a lockdown,” wrote Ewa Beach parent Romel Pasaoa. “They are not taught what to do if an intruder breaks into a room and incapacitates their teacher. We do not want to scare our children but age-appropriate education will be a life saver if the worst case scenario ever occurs.”

When it comes to the interior locks, Carlson said about 24,000 locks would need to be approved by the fire department and the initial cost is estimated at about $700 per installation.

“In order to pass the fire code inspection, occupants in the classroom would need to be able to escape and open the door with a single motion,” he said.

Most DOE schools already have intercom systems, according to Carlson.

“Some schools are awaiting repairs to their systems, but these schools should have an alternate system in place for mass notification,” he said. “HIDOE is in the process of replacing all intercom systems with an integrated system that uses our recently upgraded IT infrastructure.”

Campbell High School gated entrance near Administration building.
Campbell High School’s fenced-in entrance near the administration building. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Some neighbor island schools have beefed up security in recent years by stationing police officers in schools as on-campus resource officers. While that initiative began with a federal grant, some counties decided to continue funding those positions since they saw value in the officer presence, according to the DOE.

Lt. Allan Watanabe of the Hawaii Police Department on the Big Island told Civil Beat that the resource officers assigned to the two main schools in his district have amped up security at those locations.

“These two schools are much safer with the presence of the officers on campus,” the 27-year veteran of the department said. “They’re assigned to the school. They work hand in hand with the school administration and teachers.”

SB 2576, which will next go to the Senate floor for a vote on March 6, materialized after Russo, a science teacher at Campbell and former longtime substitute at several other schools, alerted lawmakers last year about the lack of interior locks and internal communications system at some schools.

Campbell, Hawaii’s largest public school with an enrollment pushing 3,000 students, doesn’t have an intercom system and instead relies on office phones to dispatch messages from school administrators to classrooms.

In the din of a noisy classroom, it would be impossible for anyone to hear what comes over the speaker phone, Russo said.

“If they’re saying there is a lockdown, it’s coming from the phone on the speaker. First of all, it’s not very loud,” she said. “In a regular busy classroom, you can’t hear it. Second, the phones go down.”

Legislators are also in the process of facilitating a meeting between education and fire department officials to address the costs and fire safety compliance of interior door locks, Gabbard said.

Hawaii, compared with many mainland states, has strict gun control laws. In 2016, Gov. David Ige signed three measures that tightened regulations. Those measures allow local police departments to enter firearm applicants in an FBI criminal record monitoring service, disqualify individuals convicted of stalking or misdemeanor sexual assault from owning guns and require those diagnosed with a serious behavioral or mental disorder to turn in their firearms to authorities.

Despite the existence of emergency preparedness plans and active shooter drills here, Corey Rosenlee, head of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, said more needs to be done on a broader scale.

“It’s a shame we’ve gotten to a point in our society where we have to practice active shooter drills on campus and lock our doors, pull our windows and worry about those kinds of things,” he said. “We have to look at the root problems, and that is the accessibility of assault weapons, and the lack of counseling that is happening.”

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