Crime & Justice

Questions raised about LAUSD's preparedness following threat of violence

A sign announces a closure at Rio Vista Elementary in North Hollywood as LAUSD schools shut down following a threat on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015.
A sign announces a closure at Rio Vista Elementary in North Hollywood as LAUSD schools shut down following a threat on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015.
Mary Plummer/KPCC

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If there's an upside to Los Angeles Unified's controversial decision to cancel classes Tuesday after a threat of violence, it may be the lessons learned in rolling out the district's safety plan covering about 900 schools.

The district's messages to parents alerted many to the closing of their children's schools after a board member received a message that threatened an attack on multiple schools. 

Some parents told KPCC that the notices came late, in one case after the time school was set to begin. One teacher also told the station she didn't get notified by the district until after 8 a.m.

It's not clear how many parents and teachers may have missed the alerts or received them late. At about 6:30 a.m., the district said in its website blog it was notifying all parents and guardians of the closures. Officials did not immediately respond to questions about possible issues with the notices.

Children already at school when classes were canceled were told to wait for their parents at designated school gates during one of the coldest days of the year. One parent said she reached out to schools and officials in her area to see about opening parks and even City Hall for students who had nowhere to go after the schools were closed.

Still, LAUSD board president Steve Zimmer praised the effort to reunite students with their parents, noting that only three students were still waiting by late morning.

While the schools sat empty, law enforcement officers from more than a dozen agencies helped check that the schools were safe. 

Rudy Perez, a detective with the Los Angeles School Police Department and vice president of the Los Angeles School Police Association, praised local officials and LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines for the coordinated response.

"Mr. Cortines has really moved everything in place that we’ve prepared for," Perez said. 

Steve Zipperman, chief of the Los Angeles School Police Department, said at a late afternoon press conference that authorities walked through 1,531 sites and determined they were safe for students to return to classes Wednesday.

Not all of the school checks went smoothly: at North Hollywood High, one police officer knocked on a door and shouted to get the attention of a plant manager before he was let in.

Former Baldwin Park Superintendent Mark Skvarna disagrees that the district was well prepared for the emergency, which came almost two weeks after the terrorist attack in San Bernardino that killed 14 people.

Skvarna said Los Angeles Unified and other school districts need to increase safety procedures around any threats of terrorism. 

"There’ll come a time when they can’t just keep sending kids home," he predicted.

Isaac Maya, director of research for the Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events at USC, said the district acted with an abundance of caution.

“I think it was very clear that they had to make the decision that they made based on the information that they had available,” he said.

But he added: “What we need are better tools so that the information can be available to those making the decisions that sheds some light as to the veracity of the threat.”

Maya said the district’s response to Tuesday’s threat should be studied and analyzed with an eye toward improvements in the future. He added that the chain of reactions set off by Tuesday's threat could run taxpayers several million dollars. 

Meanwhile, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson urged schools to check their school safety plans to make sure they are updated.

He offered the help of the California Department of Education to improve safety planning.