DOE offers counseling for trauma caused by false alert

Hawaii public schools are offering additional crisis counseling services for students experiencing emotional trauma after Saturday’s false ballistic missile alert.

The state Department of Education sent letters home with students Tuesday, the first day back after the holiday weekend, that said those services are available to schools upon request.


“Recent events served as a statewide reminder of emergency preparations,” the letter reads. “Rest assured (DOE) schools hold emergency drills to educate and prepare students and staff of situations that threaten the safety and security of our campus.”

The letter says the “shelter-in-place” drill — one of five drills Hawaii public students practice annually — is the proper school emergency action for a ballistic missile threat. The DOE has conducted principal meetings with Hawaii Emergency Management Agency officials to discuss shelter-in-place planning and procedures for a missile threat, the letter said.

As of late Tuesday afternoon, no East Hawaii students had requested any additional crisis outreach, according to Chad Farias, superintendent of the Ka‘u-Keaau-Pahoa Complex Area, who said he sent a memo to all public schools in the Ka‘u-Keaau-Pahoa and Hilo-Waiakea complex areas requesting to stay informed of those who had.

Rebecca Keolanui, licensed marriage and family therapist in Hilo, said she also hasn’t had any clients seeking services for their children specifically after Saturday’s attack, but she recommends any children having issues get professional help.

For children, “any kind of trauma which impacts basically the whole structure of their life, depending on the (child’s) age, their imagination will often take them places that are even worse than the reality of the situation,” Keolanui said. “Some children can’t even relate because they have nothing attached to it — if they haven’t been tuned into the threats from North Korea, they’d be more confused than anything. But the reaction of their parents is what would be traumatic for them.”

Keolanui also said parents who notice their children are still scared should work to “bring them into the present.”

“Let them know that was a scare, and now we’re all safe,” she said. “Bring them to the reality of the present moment that we’re all safe right now.”

Hilo mother of five Kealia Prince said she went into “mama bear mode” Saturday morning as soon as the emergency alert went out.

She and her children hunkered down in their Kaumana basement after taping their louver windows shut and filling cups, bottles and Hydro Flasks with water. She recalls frantically calling loved ones and flipping through TV channels for information.

“I was bawling and the kids were bawling because we were helpless,” Prince said. “We didn’t know what the potential could be or where it would hit — nothing. It was so real.”

Prince said her kids have since seemed to recover, but the family is now mulling a preparation plan.

“Now my kids want to know what they are supposed to do if something like that happens,” she said. “I was so thankful I had all my kids home. And it was a great way to think about what we should do to be prepared (in the future).”

According to the American Psychological Association, short-term distress among children is “almost universal” after a traumatic life event, though reactions can vary depending on a child’s development level, previous trauma exposure, available resources, among other things.

Distress behaviors can include nightmares, loss of interest in normal activities, irritability and separation anxiety, particularly among young children. Most children — especially after single-incident exposure — eventually return to their previous level of functioning, the Association said, and re-establishing normal routines can help.


The full DOE letter can be found at:

Email Kirsten Johnson at