Education

Did LA officials flinch on threat or was it the right call?

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This question figures to be debated for a long time. Were LA Unified officials correct to close the schools on Tuesday, disrupting the day of more than a million people, based on a crude email threat that some experts such as ex-LAPD chief William Bratton dismissed almost immediately as a probable hoax?

Superintendent Ramon Cortines says he made the call to shut down the schools and he spent the day calling the emailed threat of violent attack at LA campuses a "credible threat." At the time he made that call, in consultation with the chief of the school district's police force and the LAPD, he didn't know that a similar threat had been delivered to New York officials. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and Mayor Eric Garcetti said it was the right call for Cortines to make in "an abundance of caution," and more understandable in the wake of the San Bernardino terrorist massacre.

“I think it’s irresponsible … to criticize that decision at that point,” Beck said. “Southern California has been through a lot in the past few weeks. Should we put our children through the same thing?” The emails were sent to several campuses and school board members. From the LA Times story in which LA officials defended the action:

The threat was very broad, the chief said, but also specific: It named all of the LAUSD schools, implying high schools were the primary target. The attack would happen Tuesday, the email said. It claimed explosives had already been planted and, after they went off, people “with ISIS connections” would use AK-47s and other guns “to cause further loss of life.”


“It was also in very good English – which is not a good sign,” Beck said in an interview after the meeting. “Most of the hoaxes that I see … have syntax errors, a lot of incomplete sentences, non-sequiturs. So that concerned me.”

By midday, however, there was a spreading consensus outside of LAUSD offices and the Los Angeles Civic Center that it was an amateurish attempt, and possibly a prank. Bratton, Beck's predecessor at the LAPD, and now the top cop in New York City, called it "not a credible threat" and said it appeared to be written by a fan of the Showtime series "Homeland." He went further to say that ordering such a big reaction on such minor grounds could led to more bogus threats. "These threats are made to promote fear. ... We cannot allow us to raise the levels of fear," he said. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said "there was nothing credible about the threat. It was so outlandish." They never ordered the New York schools closed.

Said Rep. Brad Sherman, a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs committee, and an Angeleno: "There isn’t a person on the street who couldn’t have written this,” with a basic level of knowledge of Islam. “Everybody in Nebraska could have written this.” In the course of the day the FBI also discredited the threat, and by the end of the day LA Unified officials had also stopped calling the emails a "credible threat."

An all-day search of the district's 900 schools plus offices turned up nothing. Officials said LA Unified campuses would be open on Wednesday. The closure was the first of the entire district since the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the LA Times said. The closure notice went out after many students and teachers were already at or on the way to school, so there was a lot of confusion. With kids suddenly headed home, many parents had to leave work or stay home for the day.

In Highland Park, 17-year-old Andres Perez of Montebello was struck and killed by a city truck at Avenue 60 and Figueroa Street while on his way to Los Angeles International Charter High School. The school is not an LA Unified campus but also closed for the day.

On KCRW's Which Way, LA?, Warren Olney discussed the two cities' different handling of the threat with Garcetti and Adam Nagourney, the New York Times bureau chief in Los Angeles. Garcetti said it was too glib to call the threat a hoax, since it may have been an information-gathering trick or some other crime. LA Times editorial writer Kerry Cavanugh and Rep. Adam Schiff were also on. Schiff, a ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, called the threat not credible in an early afternoon press release.

During the day, the Los Angeles Times editorial board posted an editorial calling the decision to close the schools the only right decision. By the end of the day the editorial no longer took a direct position but described the various fallouts of the threat and the reaction.

The threatening emails routed through an Internet server in Germany but could have been sent from anywhere. The Los Angeles-centric email contained some local information and referred to "LAUSD," while the most similar New York email included some local references there.


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