LA schools struggle to address closings after terrorism threat

Some 700,000 students were out for the day after a system-wide threat, but the district’s digital communications were uneven.

When a school district with more than 700,000 students closes because of a terrorism threat, the fear is all the more chilling because of recent mass shootings in nearby San Bernardino and distant Paris.

For communicators from The Los Angeles Unified School District and local law enforcement, the outreach effort dwarfs any similar effort many organizations might face.

Not only did the district have to notify its employees, but it also had to get to hundreds of thousands of parents just as they were prodding their children out the door and dashing off to work.

The threat to the nation’s largest school district was communicated through a press conference that reached newspapers and radio and television stations across the vast district and nationwide. The Los Angeles Times reported:

Officials closed all Los Angeles Unified School District campuses Tuesday morning after receiving a “credible threat” of violence involving backpacks and packages left at campuses.

Authorities said they plan a search operation of all of the LAUSD’s more than 900 schools. The nation’s second-largest school district has more than 700,000 students.

“It was not to one school, two schools or three schools—it was many schools, not specifically identified,” Superintendent Raymon Cortines reported early Tuesday morning. “I am not taking the chance of bringing children any place, into any part of the building, until I know it is safe.”

Calming and informing the public

On Twitter, the school district sought to reassure the public even before announcing what was going on. Its first tweet stated, “Board president: all students are safe,” followed by this: “Superintendent: every school being searched by appropriate personnel.”

Only then did it mention the closing:

Yet as cops scrambled to search the schools and principals made sure stray kids got home safely, some implied that LAUSD had overreacted. The New York Times reported:

New York City officials said that they had received a similar threat to schools on Tuesday, but had concluded that it was a hoax. Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday morning he was “absolutely convinced” that there was no danger to schoolchildren in New York.

“Our schools are safe,” the mayor said. “Kids should be in school today. We will be vigilant. But we are absolutely convinced our schools are safe.”

As parents across the Southland sought updates, LA schools neglected some seemingly obvious channels.

The Los Angeles School Police Department’s Twitter account sent people to the district’s main website, but as of 9 a.m. Pacific time, little had been posted about the matter on the district’s main website or its LAUSD Daily brand journalism site. On the main website, a scroll bar eventually reported the closing in English and Spanish, offering a toll-free number to call.

The articles on the sites were limited to topics such as updates on a search for a new superintendent and feel-good features such as this: “For Bancroft student, toy drive for the homeless is mission of love.”

Nothing on the news page

A “news” link took visitors to a page where the top story was about the superintendent and board president “Signing the Every Student Succeeds Act.” Further down the page is a statement on the terrorist shooting that killed 14 in nearby San Bernardino, but nothing on today’s closing.

The school district eventually posted an announcement on the main page of its website and linked to a page that included the messages it had been sending out to parents, employees, administrators and others.

The Los Angeles Police Department didn’t get a statement up on Twitter until 8:37 a.m. Pacific, trailing the school district by at least an hour. “#LAPD is working very closely w/ @LASchools & @LASchoolPolice,” the police department’s Twitter account stated.

The district does, however, use text notifications for updates to employees, parents and others. An emergency notification guide states, “During a disaster, text messaging is expected to be the first successful method of communication. As such, the District requests that employees include their cell phone information through the Employee Self Service process.”

The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department made the announcement on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere.

“Please remember, if you SEE SOMETHING that you believe is suspicious or doesn’t look right to you, SAY SOMETHING by calling: (888) 950-SAFE (7233), or your local police department,” the Sheriff’s Department posted.

In what seemed an attempt to humanize the situation, the school district retweeted a photo of an elementary school principal standing at the curb and informing parents about the closings.

Reporters tweeted information as it came in at a press conference.

Twitter was awash with tweets from those who sought to score political points about the closing. Others, however, tried to laugh off their fears:

One Twitter user offered a grim reminder that deadly terrorism against children remains all too real.

@ByWorking

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