Analysis of last year’s school shutdown shows need for better computers, communication
Mike Szymanski | December 18, 2016
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A 15-page report that details the dramatic 24 hours of the largest one-day shutdown of a school district in U.S. history shows some serious need for equipment and communications upgrades.
The report released late Friday afternoon by LA Unified shows how agencies coordinated well during the safety threat, but also revealed a need for updated computer systems and some additional training and protocols.
The report was released one year and a day after an unspecific terrorist threat was made to the district. Some parts of the report were redacted before being released to LA School Report through a public records request.
This was the largest-ever activation of the LAUSD Emergency Operations Center and a significant chance to see how it worked, according to officials.
The After Action Report was written by Los Angeles School Police Chief Steven Zipperman to address administrative and operational strengths and weaknesses, lessons learned and recommendations for best practices for future incidents. The report came from Zipperman and Associate Superintendent Earl Perkins and went to Superintendent Michelle King, who released the document late Friday.
Zipperman said in an interview in October just after completing the report that communications was the biggest need for improvement.
“December 15 was a test to show how we can respond and quickly respond to an emergency and get out a message of something to that magnitude,” Zipperman said.
It’s not only how quickly to communicate to city, county, state and federal officials, but to parents as to what is happening and why, Zipperman said. “We learned a lot about that day. There are always ways that we can improve.”
School board member Richard Vladovic said he spoke to Zipperman recently about the report and complimented him about how well-coordinated the day of the school closure turned out. But Vladovic is concerned about next time.
“I’m really worried about communication,” Vladovic said. “I read the report and gave the chief some feedback, and my issue is communication. It’s one thing if school is in session and you have power, you can communicate through cell phones, but what about a major disaster at night? What if the power is out?”
Vladovic said he used pagers when he was a superintendent in West Covina. Although they used them rarely, it was a way to reach people he needed to reach in a reliable way.
Vladovic also said he is concerned that storage containers at schools be checked for proper water and perhaps military MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) in case students need to be on campus for long periods of time.
“The biggest sinners are the parents who will climb fences to get their children out of school, and we need to have an accounting for the kids,” Vladovic said. “We have to account for every youngster, because every one of them is important.”
The report noted that the Mobilization Plan for the district didn’t have contingencies for an entire district shutdown. The communications center became immediately inundated with calls and got overwhelmed.
The initial robo-calls through the Blackboard Connect message to parents and personnel “was not timely, as many recipients reported first hearing of the shutdown from local news sources,” the report said.
Of the calls, there was an 80 percent success rate for contacting the 802,000 parent phones and 83 percent success for the 81,000 employee phones notified. Everyone was asked to update their phone lists soon after the shutdown.
The district has an aging Computer Aided Dispatching and Mobile Data Computer system that was relied on heavily during the shutdown, and it needs to be improved, the report notes.
Despite some great teamwork between the police and local districts, some challenges existed. “Roles appeared unclear to some Local District Superintendents and Administrators of Operations,” the report says. And there was inconsistent email messages, and computers were slow and not able to connect to the Internet.
Among the other “lessons learned,” the report suggested that other regional public safety and emergency management executives be notified “prior to initiating the large-scale school closure. This would allow for the immediate coordinating and sharing real-time information at an executive level so that inter-agency planning, messaging and response would be consistent with operational goals.”
The district didn’t take advantage of the sheriff department’s emergency communications center, and the timeliness of some messages was slow in getting a multilingual message out. For example, some cafeteria workers were already on the job before hearing about the shutdown.
Calls were dropped, networks were slow and computers were stalled using web-based tracking applications. That kept the district from verifying the actual locations of all 1,300 school buses. Desktop computers are 8 years old and outdated, the two-way radios aren’t all strong enough, and some computers crashed.
Already some changes have been made, including trainings and revising some protocols, according to the report. And, in the future, school closure decisions need to be made by 5 a.m., according to the report.
In a joint statement from King and LA Unified School Board President Steve Zimmer released on the anniversary of the shutdown, they praised the efforts of the police department.
“As we think about a difficult day one year ago — when we closed all LA Unified schools for the first time ever due to a threat — we are reminded of the extraordinary effort by the Los Angeles Unified School Police and other law enforcement partners. As they do every day, these dedicated men and women made it their top priority to ensure our students, employees, families and schools were safe.”
The report detailed the incident of the threat of the “violence to unnamed campuses” on Dec. 15, 2015, “by use of explosives and firearms while schools were in session.”
The timeline in the report shows:
10:01 p.m. Dec. 14, 2015. Zimmer received the email threat.
10:17 p.m. Zimmer called Chief Zipperman.
10:28 p.m. Zipperman called LAPD.
10:41 p.m. LAPD called the FBI.
The report noted that the threat as a whole “appeared unlikely,” but portions concerned them that a “lone wolf perpetrator” could be targeting a random school site “particularly 13 days after the terrorist incident in San Bernardino.”
12:05 a.m. Dec. 15. LAPD Major Crimes began a “workup” and threat analysis of the email, contacted the FBI and they met at LAUSD Headquarters two blocks away from the LA Unified Beaudry Avenue headquarters.
2:30 a.m.. The investigator identified an Internet protocol (IP) address overseas. The FBI’s Cyber Threat Unit’s review of the threat “lacked credibility and needed further vetting” and they worked with international counterparts to find out where it came from exactly.
3 a.m. Each LA Unified board member was emailed by Zipperman and told of the threat and what they had learned so far.
4:41 a.m. Zipperman, Zimmer and then-Chief Deputy Superintendent King got on a conference call and it was determined that all the school sites should be searched and a shutdown was the only option.
4:55 a.m. Just-retired Superintendent Ramon Cortines was contacted and briefed and he made the final decision to begin the school closure.
5:09 a.m. The LAUSD Emergency Operations Center was activated, notifying LAPD Police Chief Charlie Beck and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.
6:03 a.m. LA City Emergency Management Department duty officer was notified.
6:05 a.m. LA County Office of Emergency Management duty officer was notified.
6:31 a.m. Local District Superintendents and principals were notified.
6:52 a.m. Blackboard Connect, a system used at the district since 2007 that had successfully sent out more than 400 million calls, was activated to call families and staff. An estimated 1.1 million phone numbers were dialed in both Spanish and English.
9:30 a.m. A joint news conference was held with city officials.
School administrators and plant managers conducted walk-throughs with law enforcement for the entire day and students were sent home.
4:30 p.m. All school sites had been completed with the help of 2,700 city, county and state law enforcement officers from 15 different agencies. Schools were declared safe.
5:30 p.m. A final news conference was held to announce that schools would reopen the next day.
6:10 p.m. The Emergency Operations Center was officially deactivated.
6:30 p.m. The calling system sent messages to parents and employees that schools would reopen.
In their joint statements released by the district’s communications office Thursday, the superintendent and Zimmer also thanked the employees for “sacrifices they made as we worked through a very intense day.”
They said that they are continuing to use the lessons learned to introduce best practices.
“Together, we emerged from the shadows of uncertainty and fear and pushed to become stronger and more aware,” Zimmer and King noted in their joint statement.