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Midnight food deliveries, confused parents and no sleep: real talk from inside the Los Angeles Unified shutdown

A police officer secures the Robert F. Kennedy Learning Center in Los Angeles after emailed threats jeopardizing the safety of school children forced the closure of all LAUSD schools on Dec. 15, 2015.
(Luis Sinco / LA Times)

It began with a late-night phone call.

Deputy Los Angeles School Police Chief Jose Santome was getting into bed when his boss called with an urgent request.

“Shave and put on a clean uniform,” he was told. “We have a problem.”

It was Dec. 14, and the recent terrorist attack at a holiday party in San Bernardino that killed 14 people and wounded 22 was still fresh on their minds.

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By the next morning, the nation’s second-largest school district was on lockdown. Administrators of the Los Angeles Unified School District set up calls to parents, telling them that schools were closed because of a dramatic email sent to school board members. The note threatened rifles, “nerve gas agents” and “pressure cooker bombs” across campuses.

The shutdown was praised, but also mocked. Some parents were thankful schools were taking no risks. Others were critical of they way they were informed; New York City got the same email and knew it was a hoax — its schools stayed open.

Eight months later, the district and police are preparing an “After Action Report,” and the state is trying to determine how much money the district should recoup in lost student funds.

Santome and detective Rudy Perez recently presented the incident as a case study to an overflow room of school police officials concerned about what might happen during threats to their campuses. The officers were at the Disneyland Resort conference center for the National Assn. of School Resource Officers conference.

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Deputy Los Angeles School Police Chief Jose Santome tells a room full of school police in Anaheim about what it was like to shut down the nation's second largest school district for a day.
Deputy Los Angeles School Police Chief Jose Santome tells a room full of school police in Anaheim about what it was like to shut down the nation’s second largest school district for a day.
(Joy Resmovits / LA Times )

The Los Angeles cops conceded that the shutdown also provided some lessons about what not to do. “We do a lot of learning in L.A. because we do a lot of stupid [expletive],” Perez said, smiling, before he began his formal presentation. “It was a pretty amazing moment.”

Since then, Santome said, the department has made changes.

“A lot of what happened on Monday night Dec. 14 and Tuesday the 15th was because we did not have some of the intelligence and technology mechanisms that we have today in our district and our department,” Santome said.

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“We learned a lot, and at the end of the day, we’re better,” he continued. He declined to elaborate when asked what improvements the department had made, citing “operational security.”

Perez, who spoke on behalf of his local region for the association of officers, said he learned of the threat Monday evening. He contacted his department’s technology team, who were able to trace the email back to Germany. The FBI would later announce it had also traced the message to Germany.

Early that Tuesday morning, Dec. 15, Ramon Cortines, the retiring superintendent of LAUSD, made the call to shut down the schools. “Whether New York agreed or not, we were making the decision with what we had in our hands, at that moment,” said Perez.

Santome said district and police officials decided that the disruptions caused by shutting down outweighed the risk of ignoring a potential threat. Cortines released a statement at the time about the “difficult day,” saying the decision was not made lightly.

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“It disrupted the lives of our students, our employees and their families,” he said. “I took this precaution out of an abundance of caution.”

Despite their general approval of the closure, some parents, students and teachers said they wished they had gotten better information about the district’s plans. One parent, Angie Guinto said she didn’t get a call from the district until 10 a.m., and Manzoor Azeez said at the time that he got an alert from the district at 8 a.m. — in Spanish, a language he doesn’t speak. Others said they were satisfied.

Meanwhile, officials in New York said the letter looked like something out of the television series “Homeland.” The “A” in “Allah” wasn’t capitalized, for example, New York Police Department Commissioner Bill Bratton said.

But New York authorities had failed to quickly send all of the information they had to the Fusion Center, an information-sharing center used by law enforcement, Santome said. “They had it three hours before we did.”

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Santome, meanwhile, set up a command center and set about relaying information to the district and other law enforcement agencies, while coordinating the search for bombs and other devices at over 1,000 schools.

Perez learned that several other districts had received similar threats, and he said he fielded calls from Ferguson, Miami and Detroit.

Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Ramon Cortines is flanked by Mayor Eric Garcetti and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck during a press conference to talk about a phoned threat to the safety of schoolchildren that forced the closure of all LAUSD schools.
Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Ramon Cortines is flanked by Mayor Eric Garcetti and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck during a press conference to talk about a phoned threat to the safety of schoolchildren that forced the closure of all LAUSD schools.
(Luis Sinco / LA Times )

Amid the chaos, Santome got a call saying that Cortines wanted to check in on his command center.

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“Tell him not to come in,” Santome remembered saying. But it was too late — Cortines was already at the door, along with State Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and LAUSD’s Dep. Supt. Michelle King, who was shortly thereafter to succeed Cortines. As the officials walked through the command center, Santome said he realized that millions in school funding — paid by the state based on attendance — was at stake.

In this case, the state agreed to release the funds despite the closure — how much, though, is still being worked out.

As the tense day unfolded, the goal was to have campuses given the all-clear by 5 p.m., Santome said, because the district wanted to hold a news conference at 5:30 p.m. That conference ultimately occurred on schedule.

After that event, Santome began winding down operations. But more complications emerged: Schools couldn’t open the next day unless they received milk and bread deliveries, since many L.A. Unified students depend on school meals for their nutrition, the food services coordinator told him. Because of that day’s hubbub, the trucks hadn’t made their deliveries.

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So Santome, thrown by the unexpected last-second job, called his officers back in to help get the dairy trucks to the appropriate schools. They finished by midnight.

At the Anaheim presentation, one school policeman asked Perez whether they had found the perpetrator. The FBI had made no arrests, he said, but still had leads based on searches they conducted in several countries. Laura Eimiller, a spokesperson for the FBI in Los Angeles, said there is an ongoing investigation.

Santome faced his audience with a smile. “If you want the BS answer,” he said, “we are currently pursuing all leads.”

Richard Winton contributed reporting.

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