Police increase presence at Puna schools after threat

  • MICHAEL BRESTOVANSKY/Tribune-Herald Keaau High School principal Dean Cevallos.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald

    Police increased their presence Wednesday at Pahoa High School in response to online threats of gun violence at Pahoa High, Keaau High School and Konawaena High School.

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Police Capt. Samuel Jelsma talks about online threats of gun violence at three Big Island schools Wednesday.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald

    Police officers stand guard Wednesday at Keaau High School in response to online threats of gun violence at Pahoa High School, Keaau High and Konawaena High School.

Police officers stood watch at Pahoa and Keaau high schools Wednesday after warnings of gun violence at the schools circulated online.

Although no incidents were reported throughout the day, the mood at both schools was uneasy as Puna District police officers stood guard at entrances to both campuses while many parents took their children out of school for the day.

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“Better safe than sorry,” said one Keaau junior, whose parent retrieved her from school in the morning.

The inciting incident for the heightened security was a Jan. 29 Instagram conversation between two teenage girls, said Capt. Samuel Jelsma, Hawaii Police Department Puna District commander.

The conversation grew heated until one girl promised: “And if i do come back imaa (expletive) bring a gun.”

The exchange took a sinister cast after last week’s school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that claimed the lives of 17 people, 14 of them students.

According to an Instagram post, the other girl in the conversation reported the threat this week to school authorities, who directed the case to police.

Jelsma said police interviewed the girl in question and referred the case to Family Court. However, news of the incident spread on social media, with other people sharing distorted versions and interpretations of the warning, some implicating Pahoa High School, others Keaau High School.

“They’re all piggybacking off each other,” Jelsma said, adding that many people are “on edge” in light of the Florida mass shooting.

Meanwhile, Konawaena High School also saw additional police presence after a 17-year-old made social media posts online referencing “shooting up local schools.” The teen was charged with second-degree terroristic threatening.

“Teenagers have a tendency to think, ‘Hey, this is funny,’” said Keaau Principal Dean Cevallos about the warnings.

Cevallos said the threats would not interfere with classes, but acknowledged many parents chose to keep their children at home or pull them out of classes.

“You want your kids to be safe,” one parent said. “But you also don’t want to have to live in fear.”

“This may not have been meant to blow up like this, but with the school shooting in Florida last week and kids making threats about gun shootings, this isn’t sitting well with anybody,” said Sean Banks, parent of a Pahoa student, in a phone interview. “It’s scary. When you’re a parent and you see this happening, you think ‘Oh my god’ you can’t just send them to school. Because what if you’re wrong?”

Other parents responded to the incident on social media.

“It was not a decision I needed to think about,” wrote Pahoa parent Melissa Leilani Estrella on Facebook about keeping her child at home. “She was staying home and that was it. Especially after the mass shooting in Florida. My husband and I were not going to take any chances.”

“Some kids are scared,” a Keaau junior said. “I know a lot of classes are empty now.”

A letter signed by complex superintendents Chad Farias (Ka‘u-Keaau-Pahoa) and Art Souza (Honokaa-Kealakehe-Kohala-Konawaena) was sent Wednesday to families of all schools on the Big Island. The letter assured residents that school authorities and police took every possible precaution to ensure the safety of students.

“While the threat was made to three of our schools, our entire island was affected,” the letter read. “We commend our school leaders for taking precautions and working with each other in sharing information to ensure safety measures across all complex schools.”

The letter also reflected a similar letter sent by state Superintendent Christina Kishimoto on Feb. 16 in reference to the Florida shooting.

“The horrific event that occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida has had an impact on many parents, teachers and students,” that letter read. “Across the country, school districts are dealing with rumors or threats against school safety that is spread via social media. The Hawaii State Department of Education is no exception. When a school administrator becomes aware of a threat, police are immediately notified and an investigation is launched.”

Both letters noted that making terroristic threats is a Class A student conduct offenses, incurring penalties ranging from detention to dismissal with the possibility of arrest and criminal charges.

Jelsma said there likely was no cause to maintain the increased security after Wednesday, but said police would continue to be on the lookout for warnings and threats.

“We have to act on any tip we get,” he said.

The increased security came the same day as large-scale student protests in Florida, after survivors of the Parkland massacre marched on the Florida state Capitol to demand gun control reform, while thousands of other students throughout Florida walked out of classes in solidarity. Wednesday marked a week since the shooting.

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Tribune-Herald reporter Kirsten Johnson contributed to this report.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.