LOS ANGELES — The emails arrived overnight Monday into Tuesday. They threatened the safety of hundreds of thousands of students in the nation’s two largest school districts, promising that a violent plan already had been set in motion and raising the specter of guns and bombs inside numerous classrooms.
New York City officials opted to open their public schools on time Tuesday, calling the message an amateurish hoax imitating a popular television series. But across the country in Los Angeles, Superintendent Ramon Cortines took a different tack, closing every school in his sprawling district in a move that disrupted the daily lives of more than 640,000 students and their families.
Maybe the threat wasn’t real. But maybe it was. And at a time when the world is reeling from terrorist attacks — including two weeks ago in San Bernardino, just an hour’s drive from Los Angeles — Cortines said he had no choice but to be cautious.
“I, as superintendent, am not going to take a chance with the life of a student,” Cortines told reporters at a news conference Tuesday morning.
By Tuesday afternoon, the emails in Los Angeles were being investigated as a hoax designed to disrupt school, said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
And by Tuesday night, Los Angeles officials announced that the city’s schools would open Wednesday, having determined that they are safe.
The two cities’ divergent choices, made in the face of similar threats, are a sign of the murky calculus that government officials face as they try to protect the public without giving in to the fear terrorists seek to cultivate.
The two school systems also are very different. New York’s school system is enormous, covering more than 300 square miles and enrolling nearly 1 million students. Los Angeles Unified serves an area that is more than twice as large and stretches across the city, neighboring jurisdictions and unincorporated areas. Southern California also is still grappling with the aftermath of the San Bernardino attacks, which killed 14 at a workplace holiday party.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) was critical of Los Angeles officials’ decision to close schools, saying he didn’t want to “aid and abet” those who want to sow panic. “As leaders, it is our job to protect public order and keep things moving forward in this city,” he said at a news conference.
New York City Police Commissioner William J. Bratton, who previously served seven years as chief of police in Los Angeles, was equally critical. He called the emails a “hoax” and the response in Los Angeles “a significant overreaction.”
“This is not a credible threat and is not something we are concerned with,” he said. “What we are concerned with is overreacting to it. We will stay aware, we will stay involved, but at all costs cannot start overreacting to what will probably be a series of copycat-type initiatives.”
To Los Angeles officials, the risk of inaction was too great. The district announced shortly before 7 a.m. that classes would be canceled, and officials pleaded with employers to give parents the flexibility to take care of their children.
In addition to Los Angeles police, 13 other law enforcement agencies contributed to the effort to search each of the district’s more than 900 campuses. The FBI also said it was assisting with the investigation. Officials vowed that schools would not be reopened until they were assuredly safe.
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said it was “irresponsible” to criticize the decision to close the schools, saying that officials made the best decision they could with the information they had.
“All of us make tough choices. All of us have the same goal in mind: We want to keep our kids safe,” said Beck, who noted that he had offered input before Cortines made the final decision to close schools.
Beck said the threat arrived late Monday via emails to several Los Angeles school board members that mentioned attacks by explosive devices as well as assault rifles and machine pistols. “These are things we take seriously,” he said.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said Tuesday night that although the FBI had determined it was not a credible threat, there was the possibility that someone was testing the capacity of U.S. cities to handle such a situation or that it was criminal mischief. He also said that New York officials had the advantage of knowing about the Los Angeles threats, receiving similar emails hours later, so it was easier for them “to see that this was maybe identical emails going to more than one place.”
The threat reached Los Angeles at an anxious moment in Southern California, as officials continue investigating the San Bernardino shooting, a fresh wound for the region.
Authorities are conducting a global investigation into the attack carried out by Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the husband-and-wife killers who opened fire at a Dec. 2 holiday gathering before being killed in a shootout with police later that day. No arrests have been made in that investigation, and law enforcement officials are still working to determine whether anyone else knew about Farook and Malik’s plot.
The abrupt decision to close Los Angeles schools left parents scrambling to adjust work schedules or find emergency child care. But many parents and guardians said they appreciated the school district’s caution in light of the San Bernardino attack, which has left a lingering sense that any kind of horror could happen, anytime.
“It just reminds you of the bombs, and 9/11 and all those events that shook our nation, so it’s very concerning,” said Karla Vasquez, 28, who dropped off her younger brother at Los Angeles’s West Chester High on Tuesday morning. She had already started home when she had to turn back and pick him up. “You don’t know whether we’re overreacting. What are we supposed to do? So that just kind of puts everyone at an alert.”
Vasquez said she was aware that schools in New York got similar threats and didn’t close down, but she said that doesn’t necessarily mean that Los Angeles Unified’s decision was wrong.
“But if something was to happen, it’s better safe than sorry,” she said. “And it makes you question, what type of society are we living in? Is this our reality now? How are we supposed to maneuver in this type of society?”
Linda Perry, who has two daughters in high school, said she is sorry that her children’s everyday worries about final exams have given way to fears of possible attacks. But she believes the school district reacted appropriately.
“It’s very sad that this is the topic of conversation we have to have with our children in this day and age,” Perry said. But she said she would “rather have this conversation with my child than explain why children were hurt.”
David Gomez, a former FBI agent and Los Angeles police detective, said it makes sense that the San Bernardino attacks would weigh heavily on the decision-making process in Los Angeles.
“It’s not an overreaction, considering the proximity to the San Bernardino attacks and the fact that that investigation is not completed and there may be other people out there in the Los Angeles area,” said Gomez, who is now a risk-management consultant based in Seattle. “Given that, I don’t think it’s an overreaction. It’s understandable.”
Gomez described the situation in Los Angeles as “a multiplied threat,” because it combined the possibility of violence at schools — like the mass shootings at Colorado’s Columbine High and Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. — with resurgent fears of terrorism.
“The incident in San Bernardino forever altered the way you’re going to respond to these threats, just like the incident in Columbine forever altered the way police respond to active shootings at schools,” he said.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said he would not second-guess the school system’s decision to close. He cautioned, however, that the goal of terrorists is “to terrorize people, instill fear and provoke an overreaction” and that is why the president has said “over and over again” that “we’re not going to give in to fear.”
And there were signs that the decision to close schools chipped away at Angelenos’ sense of security.
“I’m mostly scared about going back to school tomorrow because how do we know that the attackers don’t try to pursue their goals tomorrow?” said Katherine Torralba, a 15-year-old student at Aspire Ollin University Preparatory in Los Angeles, a charter school that followed the district’s decision to close.
“They could always postpone their plan, and it could take place some other time,” she said.
Garcetti said he supported the superintendent’s decision to close schools Tuesday. “It’s an abundance of caution that I think all of us who have children can appreciate,” the mayor said at a news conference.
Crandall reported from Los Angeles; Berman and Brown reported from Washington. Adam Goldman, Sari Horwitz, Jay Mathews and Steven Mufson contributed to this report.
Enrollment in Los Angeles Unified school district — roughly equivalent to the 2014 population estimate for the District (658,893).
Source: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau