Education Environment George Furukawa prism

Lahaina Parents and Teachers Voice Concerns About Transparency in the Wake of Deadly Wildfires

Officials are still working to narrow down the total number of children who may have died.
AUGUST 24, 2023 – Val Casco and her grandsons Hawea Casco, 9, and Hanuola Casco, 6, stand at the entrance to her home, which was destroyed in the Aug. 8 wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Aug. 24, 2023.

By George Furukawa / Prism

Officials are still working to narrow down the total number of children who may have died in the Lahaina, Hawai‘i, wildfires on Aug. 8. At least 97 people were confirmed dead as of Sept. 25, and more than 2,200 buildings were damaged or destroyed.

More than 3,200 individuals were initially unaccounted for, but the FBI has determined at least 2,779 of those people to be safe, with the remaining comprised of people who lack a first or last name or a credible reporter. The Department of Education (DOE) has been contacting families to support and account for students on the ground in evacuation shelters, community meetings, and other gatherings. The DOE says they have also closely tracked the data as more students continue enrolling in other schools. 

The DOE is not permitted to share information about the total number of public school-age children who may have died due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, but some data has given locals insight. 

As of Sept. 18, 3,001 students were enrolled in the DOE’s four Lahaina schools. According to the DOE, 79 Lahaina students withdrew before Aug. 8; 637 students are attending Lāhaināluna High; 881 students transferred to another DOE school; 784 students applied for a DOE distance learning program; 150 students transferred to a public charter school; 83 students transferred to private school; 301 students are in active contact with the DOE; and active contact had not been made with 88 students. 

After the fires, the DOE encouraged families who remain in Lahaina to consider having their children temporarily attend designated schools in central or south Maui or apply for distance learning if their situation allows. DOE Superintendent Keith Hayashi noted that the DOE knows families have different situations and levels of readiness relative to their children returning to campuses. While this may not be an option for everyone, he explained, for those who want their children to attend schools temporarily, the DOE is providing free bus transportation to help make the transition as easy as possible. 

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Elizabeth Bowen, a second and third grade teacher at Princess Nāhiʻenaʻena Elementary School in Lahaina, described the aftermath of the Lahaina wildfires as heartbreaking. Bowen’s home is located about 15 minutes from the wildfires. She was initially unaware of the wildfires because a power outage that morning had canceled school around 7 a.m. Had schools been in session on Aug. 8, Bowen said the devastation would have been worse with three schools on one road where the fires started.

“Lahaina is super dry, and it’s right on the water,” Bowen said. Many teachers live in the area, and Bowen said they struggled to evacuate. “The roads were blocked leaving Lahaina, and people were trying to evacuate, and they weren’t letting them evacuate … I talked to someone who was in that traffic for two to three hours, and she said they thought they were going to die.”

Bowen has heard accounts from teachers on staff who had to jump into Lahaina harbor with their children during the wildfire and were traumatized by that experience; Bowen noted that many did find their children. Bowen also thinks there were private rescues the public was unaware of. 

“I know people who had to grab their kids and whatever they had and run out of fire from Lahaina,” she said. “Everything that could go wrong did go wrong.”

Bowen expressed that the DOE and much of the government has failed in communicating any plans they have, like how to reopen schools, roads, and businesses and strategies to educate students. Bowen noted that 30% of her school’s staff lost their homes and couldn’t teach for weeks, only to find out about being called back to work from the news. 

“There are a lot of traumatized individuals,” Bowen said. “In the beginning, I felt like I was coping with it, and I hid it well, until I realized that I needed counseling, and I needed to network with other teachers. Everyone has a different experience as far as what they need to do to stay sane. Some people can do counseling now, but for others it may take a while.” 

Public meeting outside of Lahaina

As the raging wildfires spread rapidly through historic Lahaina at 1 mile per minute on Aug. 8, the parents of the missing children feared their kids—many of whom were at home alone since school wasn’t back in session yet—had been unable to escape in time. Much of that heartbreak and fear emerged at the DOE’s special Board of Education (BOE) meeting in Honolulu on Sept. 7

A major concern expressed in live and written testimony before the board was frustration with the DOE’s lack of transparency around the unaccounted for public school children and the minimal communication among the DOE, BOE, and the public.

Wallyn Christian, a grandparent from O‘ahu, made an impassioned plea to BOE members at the Sept. 7 meeting, saying the government has been showing a lack of compassion and action.

“The sad part of it is the keiki [a Hawaiian word for baby or child] is our future, and I’m sure all of you have keiki. You need to put yourselves in the shoes of the families who lost their children,” Christian said. 

The meeting was held on O‘ahu in Honolulu, where the BOE and DOE are based, but several people who testified live and in writing expressed that the meeting should have been held on Maui.

“I just really feel like the board itself should be there, giving the people of Maui the opportunity to be present, so you can feel their spirit on another level,” Jessica Caiazzo, the founder of Hawaii Parents United on O‘ahu, said. “I just find it completely inappropriate to be here. Anything dealing with Lahaina should be in Lahaina.” 

DOE personnel are actively working on contacting families impacted by the Lahaina wildfires disaster. 

“What you need to do is get us involved,” Christian said at the meeting. “The people are your resources. Use them. We’re willing to go to Maui and help. We are the most resourceful people on this planet. The people of Hawai‘i, and the people of Maui especially, will build back Maui way quicker than the government.”

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George Furukawa

George Furukawa is a freelance writer with more than 30 years of
experience writing, editing, and proofreading. He is based in Hawaii onthe island of Oahu. His articles have appeared in national publications including Nature Conservancy, Engineering News Record, Corporate & Incentive Travel, American Forests, and Amateur Chef. George has worked in various editorial positions for daily, weekly, and monthly publications in Hawaii, including the Honolulu Star Bulletin (now the Star Advertiser) and the Pacific Daily News on Guam. He also covered
the Hawaii construction industry for Trade Publishing in Honolulu, and has worked on a special project for the Hawaii Department of Health as well as the East-West Center (University of Hawaii at Manoa). George’s articles have covered a range of topics, including technology, engineering, conservation, travel, and law, and he has also worked for two law firms in Honolulu. He assisted a University of Southern California Rossier School of Education student with a dissertation that earned the student a doctorate degree. George’s articles have also been published in Malamalma and Ka Leo (University of Hawaii at Manoa

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