Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
The L.A. Unified School District’s decision had consequences for kids, parents, and teachers alike.
Students in the nation’s second-largest school district are returning to class Wednesday. An emailed terror threat shut down the Los Angeles Unified School District on Tuesday and set off a massive police hunt across its 900 campuses. Superintendent Ramon Cortines made the unprecedented decision to close schools “because he couldn’t take a chance with the system’s 640,000 students,” according to the L.A. Times.
Hours after the decision, word came that New York City public school officials had also received an email threat, almost identically worded as LAUSD’s, but had chosen to treat it as a hoax and not close schools.
"We cannot allow ourselves to raise levels of fear," New York Police Commissioner William J. Bratton told the media. "This is not a credible threat and not one that requires any action." He also called Los Angeles’ response "a significant overreaction”—an appraisal echoed by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
By Tuesday evening, LAUSD campuses had been searched, and the FBI had discredited the threat. Congressman Brad Sherman, a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs committee and who represents large swathes of Los Angeles, said the email lacked “the feel of the way the jihadists usually write.”
"We need the cooperation of whole of LA today"- Steve Zimmer, School Board President LAUSD pic.twitter.com/z3MkydI1Z3— Purvi Thacker (@purvi21) December 15, 2015
But that didn’t stop many Angelenos from coming out in support of the district’s decision, even as it interrupted the routines of hundreds of thousands of students, teachers, and parents—and potentially cost LAUSD millions in state funding. L.A. Metro gave students free rides, museums opened their doors without charge, and libraries, childcare centers, and after-school programs stepped up to help guardians in a pinch.
Why were reactions to the threat so different in New York City? Certainly, the recent mass shooting in San Bernardino, just 60 minutes from Los Angeles, set a tone of “whatever it takes” concern in California.
“I think it’s irresponsible … to criticize that decision at that point,” L.A. Police Chief Charlie Beck told the Times regarding New York City’s blunt remarks. “Southern California has been through a lot in the past few weeks. Should we put our children through the same thing?”
Many parents shared the feeling. “Of course, it's a mad scramble to figure out who would take care of the kids," Brandon Halverson, whose wife stayed home from work to care for their two children enrolled in LAUSD, told the L.A. Times. But, he added, "I'd prefer to be inconvenienced than send my kids into a dangerous situation.”
Some kids went to work with their parents, like 9-year-old Yesenia Velazquez, who walked with her dad Rafael as he hawked candy and snacks in an East L.A. neighborhood. One office worker on Twitter posted a photo of their kid squished into a cubicle.
There were also surely parents who had to miss to work to care for young children—a considerable sacrifice in a district where roughly 80 percent of students live at or below the poverty line. Adults also struggled with how to explain “terror days” to their kids.
I got finals to do, ya girl has got to pass her classes, LAUSD has to quit playing 😴😴😴— Jessa Ladia (@JessaLadia) December 15, 2015
And still others were worried about a favorite campus-adjacent tamale vendor. Had she been alerted to the shutdown?
As bells ring at the start of classes today, some teachers are heading to meetings to de-brief on the shutdown. A new finals schedule will shape up, and students and staff will have access to crisis counselors, should they need the support in the wake of the threats. Police presence will remain high across the district.
For some, however, the shutdown was just another day in LAUSD. Adriana Yugovich, a teacher at Humanitas Academy of Art and Technology at Esteban E. Torres High School (and a friend of mine), told me she used to substitute at highly underserved schools in the district, where searching students and campus lock-downs were a matter of routine. Being on high alert, she says, “was part of the culture.”