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Second Guessing L.A. Schools Closure

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The essence of leadership is making decisions based on incomplete information.

Superintendent Ramon Cortines ordered all schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District closed on Tuesday morning because of what he called a "credible" bomb threat.  Let the second guessing begin.

Even as the sweep of school campuses continued, criticism of the schools closure began.  New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton said that Los Angeles over reacted, adding that his city had determined that a similar threat was a hoax Bratton tweeted. "We are very comfortable that this is not a credible threat."

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck evaluated the situation differently.  Although the text of the email was not released, Beck concluded that the targeting information was specific enough to recommend closing the schools, according to this chronology. When asked about Bratton's comment, Beck replied tersely, "That's between Bratton and me."

'I could not take the chance'

Cortines, who in his final weeks as superintendent has been widely praised for his leadership, addressed a press conference Tuesday morning saying, "I made the decision to close the schools... Based on past circumstances, I could not take the chance."

After all, who would have thought that an American-born Muslim civil servant and his wife would have killed 14 people in San Bernardino?

In L.A., more than 600,000 students and about 100,000 adults were sent home from school.  In fact, many never arrived; school buses were ordered to return to their yards. Thousands of parents and students were confused, worried, and anxious. The closure may have been unprecedented; district and state officials said they could recall a closure on this scale.

Solidarity show

The press conference was a solidarity show with L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti saying that the "decision was not mine to make, but it is mine to support."  He ordered the city's Emergency Operations Center activated.  The school board, the schools police chief, and the county sheriff spoke in support of the decision.

By late Tuesday afternoon, the threat was being investigated as a hoax.  And by early evening it was all over.  School board president Steve Zimmer declared the schools safe after 1,300 campus walkthroughs had found no explosive devices.  He announced that schools would open Wednesday with added security.  State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson announced that the state would not fine LAUSD $28-million that the day's attendance would have generated.

Instant commentary

During the day, I followed the Twitter comments at #LAUSD and those from various news sites.  A sampling:

  • Iowahawk probably got it right: a bunch of stoners who had an algebra exam today.
  • is there anyone in the LAUSD that you would have confidence in to lead in a crisis? i cant think of one politician or board member that i would listen to...
  • If Garcetti wants to prove his leadership skills he could start with a public slapdown of the Chicken Littles involved in this.  Oh wait - he was the Head Chicken in Charge...
  • They need to fire whoever made this decision. You send one hoax email from a foreign country and you can shut down one of the largest school districts in the world - that's a lot of bang for your buck and it couldn't possibly encourage more keyboard terrorists.
  • did you know it's finals week at LAUSD? coincidence? i think not... sounds like some kid just wanted an extra day to study.. cant blame him for taking his studies seriously.. lol
  • Let me guess. In the aftermath of this, next week, LAUSD will demand open ended funding for more security. However it will be discovered funds will actually be spent on more administration and teacher retreats.

And then this from a parent:

My son is a fourth grade student at an LAUSD school. My wife is a first grade teacher at another LAUSD school. They are home today. I'm glad they are.

Maybe the message was a hoax. Nobody knows for sure at this time. In any case, I have no reason to second-guess the superintendent, Ramon Cortines. If it turns out the threat was a fake, I'll be relieved. I won't be angry at the superintendent or public officials, just at the person(s) responsible for the threat.

Cortines is retiring this month. Maybe he is overly cautious, not wanting to have a tragedy occur on his watch as he's about to leave. That's understandable, a very human -- and responsible -- thing to do.

I'm amazed at the number of people with knee-jerk reactions, so sure of themselves that this was an overreaction.

Good chance there will be no tragedy today. The inconvenience is really pretty minor. Anyone with kids knows a sniffly nose or fever can happen at any time, and a day away from work is always a possibility.

For anyone who's so sure LA schools should be open today, I wonder about this: Let's say you know that your local school has a bomb threat, how sure do you want to be about knowing it's a hoax so that you send your son and wife to be there?

At the end of the day, there was a conspicuous absence of dead students or teachers.  The story that is being written in the papers today is about second-guessing but not about guessing tragically wrong.


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