UPDATE at 5:48 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 15: Schools will reopen tomorrow. See details at the bottom.
It's looking more and more like a terrorist threat emailed to past and present L.A. Unified School District board members, at least one of them dead, is a hoax. This morning the district shut down its schools countywide as a precaution.
Area U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff said afterward that the threat appeared to be a hoax. And in New York, where public schools received the same threat, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he was “absolutely convinced” it was a hoax. Schools there remained open.
“There was nothing credible about the threat,” De Blasio told reporters. “It was so outlandish.”
In fact, the threat was received at districts across the nation.
“The preliminary assessment is that it was a hoax or something designed to disrupt school districts in large cities,” Schiff said. “In an environment in which it is very easy to transmit threats, real and otherwise, and when fear and disruption may be the goal as well as the effect, communities and law enforcement will need to make a difficult judgment as to how to respond in a variety of circumstances.”
Some might say there's no such thing as overreaction to a terrorist threat, especially when our children are involved and someone says they're planning to cause mass casualties. Then again, a 17-year-old student was killed crossing a street in Highland Park after schools closed. It seems likely he would have been in class.
Former Los Angeles Police Department Chief William Bratton, now the New York Police Commissioner, said he believes L.A. public school officials overreacted by closing the nation's second-largest district.
Bratton said the hoaxer probably watched too much Homeland. “We cannot allow ourselves to raise levels of fear,” the commissioner told reporters today.
“The language in the email would lead us to believe that this is not a jihadist initiative,” he said. “That would be incredible to think that any jihadist would not spell Allah with a capital ‘A’.”
The FBI said it couldn't comment on reports that school district officials did not consult with its experts before deciding to shut down the schools today.
“I assumed it was a hoax form the very beginning, given that the New York school districts got the same threat,” Aki Peritz, a former CIA analyst who is a vice president at the Center for Intelligence and Policy, told us. “They dismissed it as a hoax because of nonspecific threats that were made in an email.”
“I am sympathetic to any public official who has to deal with this issue in real time,” Peritz said. “I don’t want to throw rocks. However, I would hope that in the future, if this turns out to be a hoax, they would talk to members of law enforcement, intelligence. The FBI has something called the Joint Terrorism Task Force to help determine whether it’s a hoax or not before making a decision for half a million students.”
Los Angeles officials said it was unfair to second-guess the decision.
“This decision has been made by the school district in an abundance of caution,” said Mayor Eric Garcetti. “As mayor, we have shared our support and our intelligence, and LAPD is working in collaboration with LAUSD School Police to fully investigate this threat.”
“I think it’s irresponsible, based on facts that have yet to be determined, to criticize that decision,” LAPD Chief Charlie Beck told reporters.
For now, authorities are trying to track down the source of the threat.
“The FBI is assisting,” said spokeswoman Laura Eimiller. “The FBI's role is to investigate the threat with our partners to determine the person or group responsible.”
UPDATE at 5:48 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 15: Officials said in an early evening press conference that school will be back in session tomorrow, with increased police patrols.
“We believe our schools are safe,” said LAUSD board president Steve Zimmer. “We can reopen schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District tomorrow morning.”
Mayor Garcetti said the email “was not a credible threat.” He also noted that closing public schools “was not” his “decision to make.”
Chief Beck made a pretty lame argument in suggesting that if parents knew what officials knew, they wouldn't have sent their children to school today anyway. That's probably true, but it's up to leaders to lead: If we knew what police know on a daily basis, most of us probably wouldn't leave the house.
“The safety of our chidren is the priority,” Beck said.
UPDATE at 6:06 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 15: Beck also distanced himself from the decision and said that the FBI and other law enforcement officials gave their best assessments of the threat to outgoing Superintendent Ramon Cortines, who apparently then made the call.
“This is not our decision to make,” Beck said.
Cortines, rarely seen in the kind of non-office street clothes he wore today, did not speak during tonight's press conference. The district is expected to find his successor soon.
You might even call him a lame-duck superintendent.
Garcetti said the email threat was received by Zimmer at 10 p.m. Monday, so the district had hours to vet its authenticity and compare notes with other recipients.
“We were quite lucky we had a school board president working” at that time, Garcetti said.
But officials said it wasn't known until later that other districts had received the communique.
UPDATE at 6:26 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 15: He didn't speak during the evening news conference, but Cortines just issued a statement, saying, in part, that “I decided to close schools, and this choice was not made lightly.”
Here's the whole thing:
Today has been a difficult day, with L.A. Unified schools closed for the first time in decades. Thanks to the extraordinary effort by Los Angeles Unified School Police and law enforcement partners, all L.A. Unified schools and charters have been inspected and Chief Steven Zipperman has given the all-clear. Classes and after-school activities will resume on Wednesday. The District will have crisis counselors available for students and employees who may need additional support.
I decided to close schools, and this choice was not made lightly. It disrupted the lives of our students, our employees and their families. Based on recent events, I took this precaution out of an abundance of caution and to ensure safety and security in our schools.
We now must get back to the business of educating our kids. Our local districts will be supporting school and maintaining consistency. I have asked state Schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson to allow us to count today as an instructional day and reimburse the District for funds we will otherwise lose.
I want to thank our L.A. Unified families for your support and your sacrifice as we worked through a very difficult day. I am also very grateful to my colleagues on the Board of Education and to our principals, plant managers and police officers who played a pivotal role in securing our schools.
In addition, I want to express my appreciation to Superintendent Torlakson and to Mayor Eric Garcetti, the Los Angeles City Council, and to Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck for their unwavering support. We also owe our thanks to the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and to a host of law-enforcement agencies that came to our aid. They are: the Los Angeles Police Department; Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department; California Highway Patrol; the Departments of Police Services at the University of California and Cal State Northridge; and the police departments from Long Beach, San Fernando, Bell, Gardena, Hawthorne, Huntington Park, Inglewood and South Gate.
Finally, this event underscores the need for everyone to remain diligent and serves as a reminder — if you see something, say something.