12.15.15

Threat That Closed Los Angeles Schools Being Treated as Hoax (New York Times)

LOS ANGELES — After the Los Angeles public schools were shut down Tuesday in response to threats of a bomb and poison gas attack, officials determined that the threats were probably a hoax, but not before the lives of millions of Angelenos — students, parents, teachers and school staff members — were thrown into disarray.

The threat came in an email sent to board members of the Los Angeles Unified School District, said Charlie Beck, chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. New York City officials said they received a similar threat to schools on Tuesday, but did not close schools after concluding that it was a hoax.

Law enforcement and schools officials said the emails to both cities originated in Frankfurt, or were routed through there, and appeared to have come from the same sender. The F.B.I. was working with local law enforcement agencies in investigating.

 

After receiving an intelligence briefing, Representative Adam Schiff, a Los Angeles-area Democrat who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that “the preliminary assessment is that it was a hoax or something designed to disrupt school districts in large cities.”

 

The Los Angeles threat was explicitly “to students at schools,” said Ramon C. Cortines, the superintendent of the district, the nation’s second-largest. He said “some of the details talked about backpacks and other packages.”

 

“It was not to one school, two schools or three schools — it was many schools, not specifically identified,” Mr. Cortines, wearing a gray sweatshirt, said at a news conference shortly after 7 a.m. “I am not taking the chance of bringing children anyplace, into any part of the building, until I know it is safe.”

 

Representative Brad Sherman, a Democrat who represents parts of Los Angeles, said the writer of the email claimed that “he has 32 jihadist friends” ready to attack the schools using bombs, nerve gas and rifles. The writer identified himself as a practicing Muslim who had attended a Los Angeles high school and had been bullied while he was there, according to Mr. Sherman, who said he had been given a copy of the email by one of the school board members who had received it.

 

Mr. Sherman said that elements of the message did not appear credible, including the number of potential attackers and the claim that they had access to nerve gas. It was signed by a male Arabic-appearing name, he said, but added: “The word Allah appears several times in the email, but once it’s not capitalized. A devout Muslim or an extremist Muslim would probably be more careful about typing the world Allah.”

 

The author appeared knowledgeable about the way schools here are set up, referring to the system by its official name. “Just because parts of the email are false, doesn’t mean it’s all false,” Mr. Sherman said.

 

The threat to New York schools was sent via email to an Education Department official around 5 a.m. on Tuesday, said a law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to publicly discuss details of the threat, which remained under investigation. The official said that the emails appeared to have also been routed through Germany and to have come from the same person — who in this case said he had 138 jihadist friends who would abet him.

 

Stephen Davis, the top spokesman for the New York Police Department, said, “After an analysis, we have determined that the emails were the exact same wording with the exception of putting in the cities’ names and changing the number of people who were supposed to be participating in it,” meaning the threatened attack on schools. “Other than that,” he said, “it was a cut-and-paste job.”

 

Mr. Cortines and other Los Angeles officials said the schools here would remain closed until the police and school administrators had searched every building to make sure the campuses were safe. But the logistical task involved is immense, as is the potential for chaos: The Los Angeles Unified School District has more than 640,000 students, enrolled in 900 schools and 187 public charter schools, sprawling across more than 720 square miles.

 

The district asked parents not to send their children to school, and ordered most employees to stay away, but many were already on their way, or even at school, when the order to close was made. Mr. Cortines and other officials said that the children were being kept out of the buildings, and asked parents to pick them up at school gates. Much of the district’s fleet of yellow buses had already begun its morning rounds, before being told to turn back.

 

The closings came as the region remained on edge after the terror attack in San Bernardino less than two weeks ago that left 14 people dead and 22 wounded. Over the last two weeks, there have been a number of bomb threats. But the authorities treated this one differently.

 

“This is a rare threat,” Mr. Cortines said. “We get threats all the time.” Though he would not elaborate on why this one prompted such a strong response, he cited circumstances like the San Bernardino massacre and other events around the world.

 

In New York, Mayor Bill DeBlasio and Police Commissioner William J. Bratton said at a news conference that there was nothing to suggest that the threat was credible, and plenty to suggest that it was not.

 

“It was so generic, so outlandish, and posed to numerous school systems simultaneously,” Mr. de Blasio said. “Kids should be in school today. We will be vigilant. But we are absolutely convinced our schools are safe.”

 

Mr. Bratton, a former Los Angeles police chief, said that threats were often made against New York City schools, and that they were assessed on a case-by-case basis. The threat made Tuesday, he said, resembled a story line from the television show “Homeland.” He suggested that Los Angeles schools officials had overreacted, and that they had made the decision without consulting law enforcement.

 

Officials here rejected the suggestion. Mr. Cortines said he had learned of the threat from Steven K. Zipperman, chief of the school district’s police department, and he and Chief Zipperman said they had discussed how to respond before Mr. Cortines ordered the schools closed.

 

Chief Beck said that Chief Zipperman alerted the Los Angeles Police Department “late last night,” and that “we became very concerned, contacted the F.B.I.” He said he supported Mr. Cortines’s decision.

 

“It is very easy in hindsight to criticize a decision based on results that the decider could never have known,” Chief Beck said. “It’s also very easy to criticize a decision when you have no responsibility for the outcome of that decision.”

 

There is extensive history linking Mr. Bratton, Mr. Cortines and Chief Beck. Chief Beck worked here under Mr. Bratton, and then succeeded him as chief. And during part of Mr. Bratton’s first stint as New York police commissioner, in the mid-1990s under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Cortines was New York’s schools chancellor, often feuding with the mayor.

 

Carmen Fariña, New York City’s current schools chancellor, sent a message to school employees Tuesday acknowledging that threats had been received, but assuring people that they had not been judged credible. “Classes and school activities are going on as normal today,” she wrote.

The decision to cancel the school day here upended the lives of many Los Angeles residents.

 

Bernys Maldonado, who lives in the Koreatown section of the city, said she was luckier than most, able to leave her three sons — in kindergarten, fourth grade and sixth grade — with her mother, and still head off to her job as a medical assistant. But with everyone’s plans askew, she said, traffic was a nightmare.

 

“We were just preparing the lunches and about to walk out the door, when one of our teachers texted all the parents, and informed us all the schools were closed and to look at the news,” she said. “Honestly, I thought the teacher was making a mistake or exaggerating. Never in my imagination did I think there would be something like this.”

 

John Guanzon, 16, a junior at Hollywood High School, arrived unaware at the nearly abandoned school campus Tuesday morning, expecting to take final exams. “When are finals going to be now?” he asked. When asked what he was going to do instead, he said, “I’m just going to stay home, I’m going to study.”

 

Christine Clarke learned of the threat on television and raced to Hollywood High, looking for her son, Tyler, 13. “I’m trying to figure out where he is,” she said. “If they sent an alert, I never received it.”

 

Ms. Clarke said she had called in sick to her job as an accounts manager to search for her son. “I’m scared, very scared,” she said. “It’s hard to believe this is happening in our backyard.”

 

Steve Zimmer, president of the school board, said: “We need the cooperation of the whole of Los Angeles today. We need employers to show the flexibility that a situation like this demands, and we ask you to show the maximum possible flexibility with your employees who are primarily mothers and fathers and guardians.”

 

Mr. Cortines said administrators and the police would “work systematically through the schools.”

 

“I’ve asked the plant managers to walk the school, and if they see anything that is out of order to call the police,” he said. “Not to touch anything, but if they see anything out of line to contact the proper authorities.”

 

Chief Zipperman said the threat was specifically against the Los Angeles district. He said he knew of no threat made against any other schools in the region.

 

Nancy Vinicor, a fifth-grade teacher at Clover Avenue School in west Los Angeles, said she and her colleagues had been stunned first by the text alerts they received telling them to stay home, and then by the realization that it applied to the entire city. But their primary reaction, she said, was worry for their students.

 

“There are some kids who walk to school on their own,” she said, “and we’re concerned that some parents didn’t hear the news and dropped their kids off. And the biggest concern is now the kids are going to be afraid to go to school. It makes me angry, honestly. We have students from all over the world, some of them come from places with horrible violence, and they thought they had escaped this kind of thing.”

 

Michael Rosner, principal of the Gardner Street School, outside of Hollywood, stood in front of his elementary school Tuesday morning, the doors closed, and the street — normally packed with parents dropping off children — deserted. Mr. Rosner said the school district’s early alert system had succeeded in telling parents not to come to school. “Any parent that arrives here we are sending home,” he said. “But our emergency system is working well.”


Source: New York Times