Handling of L.A. schools shutdown offers a civics lesson
On Tuesday morning, as the nation’s second-largest school district was shutting down in response to a suspected terrorist threat, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti took the microphone at a news conference led by L.A. Unified School District Supt. Ramon Cortines.
With his first words, the mayor established the posture he would adopt toward the crisis throughout the day. “The decision to close the schools is not mine to make, but is mine to support,” Garcetti said.
That seemingly innocuous statement underscored the jurisdictional divisions that marked L.A. government’s response to the threat. In L.A., unlike New York and Chicago, the mayor does not control the schools. Cortines ultimately made the choice to close the district.
A day after that decision, which has drawn some criticism because the threat turned out to be a hoax, key players acknowledged that their effort could have been better coordinated.
Cortines, who was awakened with news of the threat seven hours after it was received, said in an interview that he should have been called earlier. Garcetti said one lesson of Tuesday’s school shutdown was that officials of different agencies should try to coordinate more closely during future city emergencies.
“I think it is better to be brought in as collaboratively and as quickly as possible,” he said.
Meanwhile, some critics say the false alarm has laid bare potential shortcomings in officials’ capacity to handle future crises, both in the nuts and bolts of coordination among government agencies and in the less quantifiable ability to reassure the public.
Garcetti’s repeated efforts throughout the day to emphasize his lack of ownership of the decision gave the impression that he and the police department he oversees were not fully committed to the school district’s course of action, said Joe Domanick, associate director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“They were just moving away from the decision. That’s what it looked like,” Domanick said.
Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, said the episode presented Garcetti with a dilemma.
Schnur said he understood concerns about the lack of a unified front among city and school officials at a time of crisis. But had the mayor chosen to take a more assertive role, Schnur said, he might have been vulnerable to accusations that he was playing politics with the safety of schoolchildren by trying to influence Cortines’ deliberations.
Asked why he had explicitly stated several times on Tuesday that he did not make the call to close the district, Garcetti said he wanted to “simply sort out confusion.” With the “national coverage” of the event by media organizations, he said, many people might not be aware that as mayor he is not in charge of the schools.
Garcetti said the Los Angeles Police Department had advised the school district prior to Cortines’ decision, but declined to say what the advice was. He declined to say whether he agreed with the school closure.
“We were here to support it, period. That’s their decision to make,” Garcetti said.
Some also question the mechanics of how the city and school district responded to the threat, especially the amount of time it took to notify Garcetti and Beck, and the lack of coordination among various parts of government affected by the shutdown.
Brian Michael Jenkins, a counterterrorism expert at the Rand Corp., said that the mayor and police chief ideally should have been consulted on the possibility of closing city schools as soon as district officials began to consider it seriously.
“You’re not going to wake people in the middle of the night for every stupid phone call or threat,” Jenkins said. However, “If this is sufficient that closing down the district is even an option … they should be brought in immediately at that point.”
He added, “The consequences of the decision go way beyond the schools themselves.”
Much remains unknown about what took place between about 10 p.m. Monday, when school board President Steve Zimmer first saw a vaguely worded email threatening an attack on L.A. schools with explosives and gunmen, and Cortines’ decision shortly after 5 a.m. the next day to close the schools. In an interview Wednesday, Garcetti said that Beck woke him up with a text message and then a phone call alerting him to the situation about 4:40 a.m. Tuesday.
Zimmer said Wednesday that after receiving the email he immediately alerted L.A. school police Chief Steven K. Zipperman, who told the LAPD and FBI about the threat. Over the next several hours, Zimmer said, he consulted with Zipperman and Chief Deputy Supt. Michelle King. They only contacted Cortines after they became convinced that law enforcement could not decisively rule out the attack threatened in the email.
In an interview Wednesday, Cortines defended the decision to close the schools, which he had minutes to make.
“We saw in the Boston Marathon what pressure-cooker bombs could do. All of that came into my decision,” he said. “I go back to
9/11. People knew something. Maybe they didn’t know enough. But they knew something and they didn’t act. And I was not going to let something happen on my watch.”
Cortines said he received no recommendation from the LAPD.
“Time was against me. The starting of the buses was against me,” he said. “I knew I had to do something quickly if I was going to do something. My priority yesterday was our children, our staff and our property.”
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