Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Threat that closed down L.A. schools appears to be a hoax, congressman says - LA Times

Threat that closed down L.A. schools appears to be a hoax, congressman says - LA Times

Threat that closed down L.A. schools appears to be a hoax, congressman says

L.A. Unified schools closed due to 'credible threat' of violence

The threat that prompted Los Angeles Unified School District officials to close all schools Tuesday appears to be a hoax, a U.S. congressman on the House Intelligence Committee said.

"The preliminary assessment is that it was a hoax or something designed to disrupt school districts in large cities. The investigation is ongoing as to where the threat originated from and who was responsible," Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) said in a statement.

Another local congressman, Brad Sherman, said the person who sent an email threat to several Los Angeles Unified School board members claimed to be the victim of bullying and "an extremist Muslim who has teamed up with local jihadists" — although showed no real knowledge of Islam.

"There isn't a person on the street who couldn't have written this," said Sherman, a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

In a briefing to police commissioners on Tuesday afternoon, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said the email listed all LAUSD schools but implied high schools were the main target. He said the email claimed explosives had been planted and that people with ISIS connections and AK-47s would "cause further loss of life."

Beck noted that the email did not bear the usual syntax errors, incomplete sentences and non-sequiturs that generally come with hoaxes. He said his agency reviewed the threat before contacting the FBI.

Any criticism of the school closures was "irresponsible" at this point, Beck said.

"Southern California has been through a lot in the past few weeks," he said. "Should we put our children through the same thing?"

The email also mentioned pistols and was traced to an IP address in Frankfurt, Germany, according to law enforcement sources.

All L.A. Unified campuses closed Tuesday morning after receiving what officials had called a "credible threat" of violence involving backpacks and packages left at campuses. Still, one law enforcement source familiar with the evidence said early on there was no sign that "this individual is actually capable of carrying out the threat."

LIVE UPDATES: Nation's second-largest district closes all schools

District officials have been looking into the threat since at least 10 p.m. Monday, according to a school police source.

But LAUSD Supt. Ramon Cortines told the Times he was not notified of the threat until 5 a.m. on Tuesday. He made the decision to close the schools and initial alerts went out at 6:30 a.m.

Cortines is retiring and his successor has not yet been named. The L.A. Board of Education met early Tuesday morning to discuss the school closures and to continue its discussions for a new schools' chief, although Cortines remains in charge.

New York City officials said the same email was sent to school leaders in their region, but Mayor Bill de Blasio said the note was deemed "so generic, so outlandish" that it would have been "a huge disservice" to shut down the schools.

NYPD Deputy Commissioner Stephen P. Davis called it a "cut and paste job" with a few changes, such as the name of the city.

"It entailed so much detail and was so over the top with so many people involved in the conspiracy that it didn't add up," Davis said. 

The agency was working closely with the FBI and the LAPD, NYPD Commissioner William Bratton said. He added, "We cannot allow ourselves to raise levels of fear." 

Law enforcement sources said that the person who made the threats could have masked their location and that the origin is believed to be much closer than Germany. The FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department are assisting in the investigation.  

Authorities had said they planned to search all of L.A. Unified's more than 900 schools, including charter schools and special education centers. The nation's second-largest school district, LAUSD has more than 700,000 students. 

"What we are doing today is no different than what we normally do, except that we are doing it in a mass way," Cortines said.  

The massive closure across the Los Angeles region comes less than two weeks after two shooters killed 14 people in San Bernardino in what was the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001. 

LAPD Assistant Chief Jorge Villegas said schools were closed "in an abundance of caution."

"Nothing is [more] important to us than the safety of our kids," he said.

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti cautioned the public about jumping to conclusions. "Decisions need to be made in a matter of minutes," he said.

Students who arrived at school were supervised until parents picked them up, officials said. After-school programs and athletic events were canceled. Harbor City's Narbonne High — the only LAUSD school still playing in a state football bowl game — was offered a practice field at a Catholic school in Gardena. 

Brian Levin, a terror expert at Cal State San Bernardino, said the closure was unprecedented and could embolden others to make future threats.

"In today's environment, it makes sense to err on the side of safety, even though they almost always are hoaxes," he said. 

As families scrambled to reroute their days, many students were found outside in their neighborhoods.

Ana Rodriguez, a sixth-grader at Sunrise Elementary School in Boyle Heights, walked with her older sister to pick up coffee and bread for an unexpected breakfast at home.

The 11-year-old worried about her teachers and was nervous at the thought of returning to school the next day.

"I'm scared that a bomb could explode at my school," she said.

Other students showed little concern about the threat and were happy to have a break from finals.

"I was ready for the AP Spanish test, but not history," said Alexis Diaz, a senior at Roosevelt High. Sipping a steaming hot chocolate, he and his younger brother glided by the deserted campus on hoverboards.

When he saw a newscast announcing the closures, Alexis took a photo and posted it on Snapchat. He added the words "No school" and a surprised-face emoji.

Miguel Real, 13, rode his skateboard in Highland Park, having just been sent home from Burbank Middle School. He was on his way to tell the news to his mother who had known nothing about classes being canceled. 

"She's going to freak," he said.

Earlier in the day, Zayda Hernandez had been turned away from Mayberry Elementary in Echo Park. Her 6-year-old son, Matthew Alvarez, sat in the back seat of her car, bundled up in a coat and SpongeBob stocking cap.

Matthew hasn't been feeling well lately, but Hernandez has been urging him to just make it through the last few days of school before winter break.

She pulled up to see paper signs attached to the closed chain-link fence outside the school: "No school today." "Hoy no hay escuela."

She shook her head. She had to go to work.

But her son, a kindergartener, grinned. 

LAUSD Board President Steve Zimmer asked that employers show patience for parents in need of childcare.

"We need cooperation of the whole of Los Angeles today," Zimmer said.

Some companies allowed parents to work from home, while others offered daycare at the office. Pinnacle Designs, a souvenir importer in San Fernando, set up a room with coloring books, movies and board games to accommodate two children.

Private schools across the region were also affected by the threat. Hope Street Friends, a daycare and preschool in downtown Los Angeles, said it was closed due to "a credible terrorist threat." Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, an all-girls school in La Canada, notified parents that a "dedicated security team" would be stationed throughout the school. 

Adjacent school districts, including South Pasadena Unified and Long Beach Unified, sent notices to parents about the threat to LAUSD but said they were not affected and would remain open.  

Shortly after the district announced the closures, a 17-year-old male student was struck and killed by a city service truck while crossing a Highland Park street. The boy was near Avenue 60 and Figueroa Street at about 7:30 a.m., when he was hit, Los Angeles Police Officer Jane Kim said. 

Councilman Paul Krekorian warned that if the threat was determined to be a hoax, "it has cost millions of dollars and it's outrageous." He also expressed frustration that he learned of the threat through the media.

"It would be better for all of us if we could figure out ways of speeding up the process of sharing information, particularly when there's an incident of such significance," Krekorian said.

For a group of students who spent the morning at a diner, the day was an example of a world where such threats have become almost commonplace. 

"Our generation is used to it, that's why," said Jennifer De Jesus. The sophomore at San Pedro High learned about the threat on Twitter, but thought it was a joke.

"It's been on TV since we were babies," said her friend, Cienna Cruz, 15.

The group discussed the notion that the school district had overreacted.

Nicholas De Baca, 17, said it was a tough call. "Better to be safe than sorry," he said.

Los Angeles Times staff writers Joseph Serna, Kate Mather, Ruben Vives, Sarah Wire, David Zahniser, Richard Winton, Howard Blume, Harriet Ryan, Joy Resmovits, Samantha Masunaga, Chris Kirkham, Eric Sondheimer and Corina Knoll contributed to this report.

For breaking news in California, follow @VeronicaRochaLA on Twitter.

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