What if Hawaii’s False Alarm Had Happened on a School Day?

By Evie Blad — January 17, 2018 2 min read

Hawaiians and tourists rushed to take shelter and contact loved ones Saturday after an emergency alert sent to cell phones and broadcast on televisions warned of the threat of an inbound ballistic missile headed toward the island state.

After a second message, sent 38 minutes later, informed recipients that the first alert was sent in error, the questions started. What could have prevented this? Is the state ready for such a threat? Are its schools ready?

Hawaii’s Department of Education sent a letter to parents Tuesday, assuring them that schools would be prepared to secure and shelter children should they receive such a warning on a school day. A spokesperson for the agency directed me to that letter when I asked about guidance it had provided to schools about such a scenario.

“Rest assured the Hawaii State Department of Education (HIDOE) schools hold emergency drills to educate and prepare students and staff of situations that threaten the safety and security of our campuses,” the letter says.

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency advocates that, in response to a ballistic missile threat, residents should “Get Inside, Stay Inside, and Stay Tuned.” So, if schools received an alert like Saturday’s, they would respond by asking students to shelter in place, which is one of five drills schools practice annually, the letter says.

Amid heightened concerns about North Korea’s nuclear program, Hawaii resumed in December monthly tests of a Cold War-era early warning siren, tests it hasn’t done since the 1990s, the New York Times reported. State officials believe an attack is “extremely unlikely,” but they’ve met with multiple agencies to prepare a response.

State education officials have met with emergency personnel to discuss such plans, the letter to parents’ says.

In addition to concerns about physical safety, schools are prepared to help children process the emotions related to Saturday’s false alarm, providing additional counseling services to schools if needed, the department says.

And the Hawaii Association of School Psychologists provided guidance on discussing the event with children.

“Although the events were considered an accident and there was no real threat to the state of Hawaiʻi, the threat of war and terrorism is increasingly discussed in the local and national media and our schools practice shelter in place drills and have emergency preparedness plans for attacks,” the guidance says. “As a result, Hawaiʻi’s keiki (children) may be more aware of events that could be considered frightening or upsetting.”

Among other things, the guidance recommends that adults should tailor explanations of the false alarm to make them developmentally appropriate and model a sense of calm and control.

“Children take their emotional cues from the significant adults in their lives,” the guidance says. “Avoid appearing anxious or frightened. How adults express their emotions will influence the reactions of children.”

Photo: Caleb Jones/AP

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.