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Point/Counterpoint: Did LAUSD make the right call on closure?

LA School Report | December 18, 2015

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BeckZimmerCortinesOur two reporters here at LA School Report, Craig Clough and Mike Szymanski, both have kids in school. What they don’t have is a shared opinion about LA Unified’s decision on Tuesday to close down schools in response to an emailed threat of violence that proved to be empty.

So here, in a reasoned conversation, are their views on the situation:

Q: What did you think when you heard all the LAUSD schools were being closed due to a terror threat?

SZYMANSKI: I was getting Donovan ready for middle school, when my sister (who teaches at the school) went in early only to learn there was a Level 1 threat alert and no one could enter the school. She stayed to help parents and kids, explaining that school was closed for the day.

Of course, after watching the televised press conference and making a few phone calls and posting a story, I went back up to check on the young teenager. He was back in bed with the covers pulled up. He had been ready for finals that he studied for late the night before and had a project ready to turn in.

“Are you glad you’re not going to school?” I asked

“Yeah, I guess, it sounds pretty crazy out there,” he answered. “It’s a day off.”

CLOUGH: I have a daughter in a transitional kindergarten program at a school in Pasadena. We were in the car about five minutes away when I heard over the radio that all LA Unified schools had been closed due to an emailed terror threat.

Pasadena wasn’t mentioned in the report, but it is certainly close enough to LA to be alarmed — if there were anything to be alarmed about. My reaction to the news? I drove her to school, dropped her off and waved goodbye.

Coordinated terrorist attacks don’t come with a preview warning. There was certainly no warning before 9/11, no warning before the San Bernardino shootings, no warning before the Boston Marathon bombing and no warning before the Paris attacks. I dropped my daughter off because of all the bad things I knew that could happen in the LA area that day, a coordinated terrorist attack on schools was clearly not going to be one of them.

Q: Was it the right decision to close all district schools?

SZYMANSKI: I’ve heard parents say they were inconvenienced; I heard other critics say LAUSD overreacted, but then I saw at the press conferences the faces of the school board, Ramon Cortines and the mayor and the sheriff, and I knew they had the best interest of our kids in mind. None of the school board members or Cortines have kids going to district schools, but they all have people close to them attending the schools and working there.

LAPD police chief Charlie Beck said it best when he pointed out that the officials should treat the situation as if it were their own kids. I think that’s what the district did. In covering these school officials with different opinions on everything, but where they come together is the safety of all the children.

Were I to have heard the threat made that morning? I probably would have kept Donovan home, for just a day, just in case, out of the “abundance of caution,” as the district did.

CLOUGH: Michael O’Hare, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, said this of the decision: “What L.A. demonstrated was leadership incompetent to make good decisions, willing to say nonsense and manage with slogans.”

I think that is putting it nicely.

Now that we’ve had a chance to read the full, ridiculous, stupid email, it is easy to see this was the kind of short-sighted, penny-wise-but-pound-foolish decision that helps you win the battle but lose the war.

Whoever becomes the next superintendent, it’s going to be 10 times harder for him or her to close down the district in the face of another threat, even if the next email carries a little more credibility. And since the closures made headlines around the world, every whacko, nut job and actual ISIS jihadist with an Internet connection just saw exactly how much panic they can cause with a single email. The chance of the district’s receiving similar threats just went up a thousandfold, and this decision did not make the district’s kids safer.

Q: Do Angelenos, district parents and teachers support the decision? 

SZYMANSKI: It’s unfair to second guess LA Unified’s decision. I think it made the schools safer to be able to test-run their emergency systems. I think officials found some holes in the system that will be fixed if, and when, this happens again. For everyone, it was a major inconvenience, but, wow, did the city come together.

LAUSD school board president Steve Zimmer and I chatted about how amazing all the elements came together. The FBI jumped in, 13 police agencies helped with the school sweeps, the Metro system let kids ride for free, museums agreed to let kids in for free that day, libraries stayed open late, and some places fed the kids that wouldn’t get their lunch that day. The press conferences had every major safety official in the city right there, talking to the public, allaying fears.

A lot of us in the press corps have kids who were affected. Many of us were angry, and wanted answers. I just hope that this doesn’t have anyone else afraid to do the same thing, thinking it’s another “cry wolf” false alarm.

I can’t help but think a few years ago when Donovan was in elementary school and the news of the Sandy Hook shootings happened right in the middle of the school winter concert. Parents were buzzing, texting and answering phones and upsetting the kids. One teacher told her kids briefly what happened and then said, “The show must go on, big smiles, let’s sing!” Kids from that class are still seeing therapists about that incident.

We live in a world where we can’t shelter our kids from things like this now. We have to figure out how to talk to them about it better. I do feel safer knowing, though, that we have a school system looking out for the safety of our kids, even if it is to an excess.

CLOUGH: While I don’t agree at all with the decision, the thought of violence against children is so horrifying I think most people would support a decision that in the moment seemed like the safest bet. I do think my opinion is perhaps in the minority, and may even offend some.

Yesterday, I was sitting at a park bench watching my daughter play when a man with a baby in his arms approached and struck up a conversation. His other daughter was playing with mine and he was very friendly and talkative. We chatted about the neighborhood for five minutes before he asked me if I had heard about the LAUSD school closings.

As I shared with him my views, the man got quieter and mumbled something along the lines of, “Yeah, I would just hate to be the guy who has to make the decision. I think you play it safe and close down.” I countered with why it didn’t make us safer. He seemed unconvinced.

After his baby made a slight noise, he got up, and wandered off without even a “nice to meet you.” I’m thinking he didn’t agree with me.


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