A tale of two cities - and a similar terror threat

School buses standing idle as all Los Angeles city schools were shut down on Tuesday, in reaction to an e-mailed terror threat. The warning was later deemed a hoax, and schools reopened yesterday.
School buses standing idle as all Los Angeles city schools were shut down on Tuesday, in reaction to an e-mailed terror threat. The warning was later deemed a hoax, and schools reopened yesterday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Los Angeles defends sudden school closure; New York City cautions against overreaction

LOS ANGELES • Schools in Los Angeles reopened yesterday after the authorities determined that an e-mailed threat prompting the shutdown of the second-largest school district in the US was not credible.

Los Angeles and New York were confronted by similar threats of terrorist attacks on Tuesday and reacted differently: New York City reviewed the warning and dismissed it as a hoax, but Los Angeles abruptly shut down all public schools, upending millions of lives.

The e-mailed threats - which spoke of teams of Islamists using guns, bombs and nerve gas to attack public schools - were largely identical in their wording, and both had been routed through a server in Frankfurt, Germany, apparently by the same person, officials said.


Los Angeles schools chancellor Ramon Cortines reviewed the threat with police officials before deciding to send out an alert closing nearly 1,100 schools and asking parents to keep the district's 640,000 children home.

"I, as superintendent, am not going to take a chance with the life of a student," he said. In New York, police commissioner William Bratton reviewed the city's version of the threat and decided it was "a hoax".

Later on Tuesday, officials said they believed the e-mail in Los Angeles was also most likely a hoax and that schools would reopen the next day. "We can now announce the FBI has concluded this is not a credible threat," said Mayor Eric Garcetti. "It will be safe for our children to return to schools."

The contrasting responses and the backbiting that marked the day - Commissioner Bratton said Los Angeles had overreacted, and officials in Los Angeles defiantly said they had not - was to some extent a reflection of the long and subtle competition between these two coastal cities, whose leaders have sometimes shuttled back and forth.

Mr Bratton was once police chief in Los Angeles, and Mr Cortines once ran the schools in New York. Both cities have grappled with major terror attacks and threats. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said: "It's important - very important - not to overreact in situations like this."

But Los Angeles' reaction also reflected the tension that has gripped the region since Dec 2, when an attack left 14 people dead and 22 injured. Southern California has been on edge much the way the New York region was after the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in a briefing that the administration would not "second- guess the decisions that are made by local law enforcement officials in any community across the country" in responding to terror threats.

New York officials said they were not aware of the e-mail that had been sent to Los Angeles when they made their decision. Similarly, Mr Garcetti said Los Angeles officials were unaware of the threat to New York when they made their choice.

The west coast decision threw the lives of millions of people - students, parents, teachers - into disarray and further raised tensions. "If they sent an alert, I never received it," said Mrs Christine Clarke, who showed up at a high school looking frantically for her son after hearing the news on the radio.

Parents scrambled for day care or called in sick at work, while students found themselves with a day off - during final examinations week, no less.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 17, 2015, with the headline 'A tale of two cities - and a similar terror threat'. Print Edition | Subscribe