LA officials defend decision to close schools after terrorism threat

New York officials and experts criticized the decision to keep roughly 700,000 students home on Tuesday.

Two cities on opposite coasts—Los Angeles and New York—received similar threats, but their crisis responses were worlds apart.

Now, in the wake of Tuesday’s terrorism threat, LA officials are defending their decision to shut down schools amidst criticism.

The decision, made in the second-largest school district in the United States, affected roughly 700,000 students—more than twice the population of Iceland and more than seven times the capacity of the Rose Bowl football stadium, CNN reported.

In contrast, New York City officials deemed the threat a hoax and did not close schools. No incidents of terrorism occurred in either school system.

David Katz, a former special agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, told CNN that Los Angeles Unified School District’s superintendent, Ramon Cortines, made “a big mistake”:

“You do not under any circumstance take action unless the threat is corroborated,” Katz said. “For example, if a high-rise office building gets a bomb threat in New York City, the police department is not going to come over and evacuate your building absent some credible information.”

Katz also told CNN that someone with “a little background in this area” should have made the decision, not Cortines, and though the threat called for increased security, it did not warrant “the disruption of the entire school day for that many children.”

“It’s just not the right move to make,” Katz said.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said the threat couldn’t be taken seriously because it was “so generic” and “so outlandish.”

“There were wording choices and other indicators that suggested a hoax and not anything we could associate with jihadist activity,” de Blasio said, according to CNN. “So [we decided] it would be a huge disservice to our nation to close down our school system.”

Though de Blasio’s earlier remarks did not specifically criticize Los Angeles officials, New York City’s police commissioner did so later in the day, The Los Angeles Times reported:

The move in Los Angeles was “a significant overreaction,” New York Police Commissioner William J. Bratton, who once ran the LAPD , said bluntly.

“We cannot allow ourselves to raise levels of fear,” Bratton said to reporters. “This is not a credible threat and not one that requires any action.”

LA’s police commissioner, Charlie Beck, defended the decision to close schools and said criticizing the decision was “irresponsible.” The Los Angeles Times reported:

“It’s very easy to second-guess decision-makers when you don’t have to live with the consequences of the decision,” … Beck, a disciple of Bratton’s, fired back. “These decisions are not something you get to do over again if you turn out to be wrong.”

Beck also said that although the cities’ responses differed, officials in both places share an objective.

“All of us make tough choices,” he told The New York Times. “All of us have the same goal in mind: We want to keep our kids safe.”

On Tuesday, Cortines acknowledged in a press conference that his school district gets many threats, but he described this week’s threat as “rare,” especially in light of the San Bernardino and Paris attacks.

“I, as superintendent, am not going to take the chance with the life of students,” Cortines said.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garrett also backed the decision—which he said had to “be made in a matter of minutes”—to close schools until the threat had been investigated.

“The decision to close the schools is not mine to make, but mine to support,” he said.

Other supporters of LA officials’ decisions yesterday said the recent attack in San Bernardino has affected the conversation about security protocols.

“We’re part of the impact zone of San Bernardino, so the ripple effect can be felt,” Rudy Perez, Los Angeles School Police Association’s first vice president, told The New York Times. “So, it’s better to be cautious.”

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LA officials’ decision wasn’t the only thing criticized with regard to yesterday’s threat response. Some complained that crisis communications for students and parents in LA were scattered and inconsistent.

What do you think of the criticisms and the defending statements from the two cities’ officials, PR Daily readers? Did one city or the other get it right? How might the fallout affect your organization’s crisis communications?

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