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Threats to NY, Los Angeles show tough decisions schools face

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Classes were canceled December 15th for the Los Angeles Unified School District due to an unspecified threat, a Los Angeles police spokeswoman said.

LOS ANGELES — When it comes to assessing threats, schools in New York City and Los Angeles likely have more experience than most other districts in the country.

But their reactions were dramatically different Tuesday to the same threat of a large-scale jihadi attack with guns and bombs: LA canceled its classes, while New York dismissed the warning as a hoax.

The divergent responses from the nation’s two biggest K-12 public school systems reflected what many in school security know: Deciding whether or not a threat is credible is hardly a mathematical process and the stakes in staying open or closing are high.

It is a move district officials around the country have weighed heavily after school shootings and threats. Districts regularly encounter the challenge of deciphering threats, complicated today by more sophisticated technology that can make them harder to trace.

Even when a threat is determined to be a hoax, the consequences can be a severe, with the safety of thousands of children, millions of dollars in school funding, and the message sent by each decision on the line.

It’s extremely rare for a major U.S. city to close all its schools because of a threat, and it reflected the lingering unease in Southern California following the attack that killed 14 people at a holiday luncheon two weeks ago in San Bernardino.

“If this was not ISIS, not a terror organization, they’re nonetheless watching,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Meet the Press Daily.” ”And if they come to the conclusion that they can literally mail it in, call it in and disrupt large cities, they’re going to take advantage of that.”

But one parent bringing her daughter to school as the district reopened Wednesday said no one she has talked to was second-guessing the decision to close.

“I’m glad they shut it down,” said Rebecca Alvarado, who was taking her 5-year-old daughter, Sofia, to an elementary school near downtown. “We’re used to it, sad to say, the way the world is.”

A 2014 analysis by National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm, found a 158 percent increase in the number of threats schools received over the previous year. About 37 percent of the threats were sent electronically, and nearly a third resulted in schools being evacuated. Nearly 10 percent of the threats closed school for at least one day.

Ken Trump, president of the firm, said school leaders faced with a threat they don’t believe is credible sometimes let community anxiety rule the decision to evacuate or close, even though children might be safer in school than sent home where they could be left unsupervised.

“It’s often better to keep them in school,” he said.

In LA, the threat came in an email to a school board member. Authorities in New York reported receiving the same “generic” email and decided there was no danger to schoolchildren. Mayor Bill de Blasio said the threat contained “nothing credible,” and New York Police Commissioner William Bratton said that it looked like the sender had watched a lot of the Showtime terrorism drama “Homeland.”

Officials in LA defended the move to shut down the entire district, with the police chief dismissing the criticism as “irresponsible.”

“We have suffered too many school shootings in America to ignore these kinds of threats,” Chief Charlie Beck said.

Victor Asal, chairman of public administration at the State University of New York at Albany, said the decision both districts made was reflective of their respective experiences. New York has invested heavily in homeland security and terrorism response, which might make it easier to process the size of a threat, he said.

“Los Angeles doesn’t have that same kind of experience,” he said. “So you take the investment New York has, and you take the nervousness that Los Angeles is feeling because it’s an hour away from San Bernardino, and that creates a situation where I would expect the two cities to react differently.”

LA schools commonly get threats, but Los Angeles Superintendent Ramon Cortines called this one rare and said the San Bernardino attack influenced his decision.

The threat “was not to one school, two schools or three schools,” he told reporters Tuesday. “It was many schools, not specifically identified. … That’s the reason I took the action that I did.”

The threat disrupted the routines of many Los Angeles families and frayed nerves in a region already on edge.

Lupita Vela, who has a daughter in third grade and a son who is a high school senior, called the threat “absolutely terrifying” in light of the San Bernardino attack.

“I don’t want this to be in the back of her head,” she said. “Who knows what it does psychologically to kids? Is this going to cause her some kind of trauma so that she’s not going to feel safe at school?”