State of Safety

A young keiki — the Hawaiian word for child — walked out of his Honolulu private school headed home. The problem was that school was still in session. About an hour later, the boy realize he was lost. Frightened, he found another school more than a mile distant from his own and asked for help. When an administrator called the boy’s school, he found that they did not even know that he was missing. Fortunately, the boy was returned to the embarrassed school officials unharmed. It was also very fortunate that just a few miles away, a number of school officials representing the state’s public, private, charter, independent and parochial schools were engaged in advanced training specifically designed to address this type of event and a host of other school safety concerns.

The depth of the project reveals the awesome responsibility of protecting more than 170,000 keiki attending K-12 schools across the eight inhabited islands that make up the beautiful state of Hawaii. This pro-active and innovative project is unprecedented in scale, scope and intended impact. In particular, the initiative has a somewhat unusual added goal — to improve the learning climate of the 1,700 school buildings in Hawaii’s 256 public schools and participating nonpublic schools.
Does Safety Affect Students’ Ability to Learn?

While common sense, incidental evidence and some limited empirical evidence demonstrates that safer schools are more effective schools, there has only been sporadic large-scale use of school safety as a school improvement tool. That changed when the Hawaii Department of Education launched a statewide initiative to affect academic success by relating it to safety in every public school. The program utilizes an approach that closely ties all-hazards planning to building a positive school climate — reduction of distractions due to safety incidents such as bullying, attracting and retaining superb teachers and supporting academic success.

The initiative included two sessions of an advanced four-day “train the trainer” program that demonstrated how safety, security and emergency preparedness efforts can improve academic achievement, quality service, fiscal management and other benefits along with hundreds of ways to improve life safety. The highly interactive training sessions included risk evaluation techniques as well as different ways that safety impacts school and student performance. For example, attendees learned how easy-to-apply strategies could reduce situations where teaching staff lose time on tasks; recovery time for work-related injuries; loss of instructional opportunities due to theft and vandalism of computers, televisions and instructional areas; and other situations where teaching and learning can be impacted.

Statewide Approach to Creation of a Culture of Safety
Hawaii has the only public school system in the United States operated by the state department of education. This made it possible for the effort to be required in all public schools in the state. Participation by the state’s private, charter, independent and parochial schools is optional, but has been significant as well. Representatives from each of these non-public school state organizations attended the train-the-trainer program and began teaching modules soon after the first instructor-trainer session was concluded. 

One component of Hawaii's strategy involved training of key school personnel as trainers, so they can not only perform assessments, but train hundreds of additional personnel who will also be able to conduct thorough school vulnerability assessments each year. This approach will enable the state to complete assessments on all public schools and participating non-public schools year after year for a one-time cost of less than $50,000. While several other states have had tremendous success with school safety assessment training programs, the Hawaii Department of Education has been able to adopt an approach to reach every public school year after year by internalizing the expertise for conducting assessments.

Program Funding
The initiative was made possible through federal grant funding. In 2008, the Hawaii State Department of Education was awarded a $747,978 Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) grant from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools. This grant was designed to enhance school safety and emergency readiness using the all-hazards approach required by the grant program. As the 10th largest school district in the nation, Hawaii’s program has attracted nationwide attention and even some international interest because of its success in building long-term capacity and expertise on a truly statewide scale.

Based on a hazards and vulnerability assessment process, the district worked to lessen the impact on schools from natural disasters such as tsunamis, volcanic activity, earthquakes, flooding etc., and broadened the range of their program to cover an even wider range of hazards including man-made hazards.

Based on this assessment process, the Safety, Security and Emergency Preparedness Branch developed and printed new crisis plans with assistance from public safety and emergency management personnel.

Supporting Efforts
To supplement the train the trainer program, a dynamic, custom 11-minute training video was produced that explains the assessment process to administrators and school staff. As a major focus of the initiative is to develop a positive culture of safety, security and emergency preparedness, the district is attempting to convince their 30,000 employees how critical this type of climate is to effective learning. The video and companion Web course are designed to augment the live trainings taught by the instructors. The robust and highly compelling custom Web course was developed, and all of the nearly 30,000 public school employees in the state are required to complete the program. The course emphasizes how safety can be a powerful tool to improve school climate and enhance the process of education. The Web course has drawn so much interest that a number of requests were received for district employee’s spouses and family members to be allowed to take it because it was so interesting.

Continual Improvement

Even though Hawaii public schools have not faced devastating tragedies resulting from youth violence or active shooters in any of the state’s schools to date, the program addresses these potential threats as well as a wide variety of less catastrophic yet critical potential hazards. The district’s leadership understands the need for continual improvement in their approach to safety. They also know that it would be unwise to assume that just because a particular type of incident has never occurred in the state or only occurs rarely, it still needs to be addressed.
This proactive effort should be reassuring to the parents of keiki across the lush and tropical paradise of Hawaii.

Michael Dorn has been a full-time school safety practitioner for more than 30 years. His work has taken him to Mexico, Central America, Canada, Europe, Asia, South Africa and the Middle East. The author of 25 books on school safety, Dorn has trained more than 2,000 people in conducting school safety assessments and has helped establish four statewide school safety assessment training projects. He welcomes reader questions and comments at