The Learning Curve of the LAUSD Shutdown

I as Superintendent am not going to take the chance with the life of a student.”

-Ramon C. Cortines

In hindsight, it is easy to look at the threat that was emailed to LAUSD Board members and say that the District overreacted by shutting down the schools for the day. Monday morning quarterbacks have the convenience of knowing that no bombs were found in a thorough search of facilities and that New York schools made it through their day without incident. Yes, the email does read like it was written by a terrorist’s fanboy and it is legitimate to ask why a person looking to kill as many people as possible would provide any type of warning, but Cortines had lives of 640,000 students in his hands. No matter how small the actual risk, I think that he can be excused for not wanting to take any chance with those lives. As long as they are willing to learn from the experience, the District should be given a pass.

One of the first questions that needs to be asked is whether there was enough communication between public officials in New York and Los Angeles. While condemning the LAUSD closures as a “significant overreaction”, New York’s Police Commissioner, Bill Bratton, admitted that he did not know for sure, as he claimed, that “consultation did not occur with law enforcement authorities” as this decision was made. If New York had made a mistake by not closing their schools, Los Angeles officials may have been in the best position to warn them that the threat was in fact credible. Was Bratton so confident that there was absolutely no threat that he did not feel that it was important to keep in constant contact with his West Coast counterparts? One of the lessons learned from 9/11 was that government agencies need to communicate better, especially when it comes to threat assessment.

The shutdown also exposed serious flaws in the ways that the District that  is responsible for over 900 schools spread out over 720 square miles is able to communicate breaking news to the community. For example, I did not receive a phone call from one of my daughter’s schools until after 9:00 am. Too many children arrived at school sites after the closure and in a scenario where the threat was real this could have been disastrous. Students who walk to school may have been put in a vulnerable position if they altered their destination after leaving home. Some responsibility falls to parents, who must find a way in a busy world to stay connected to the community around them and also to keep schools updated with accurate contact information. However, the District certainly did not do all it could do, especially when technology could have been used better.

In a world where news travels quickly through social media, the District did not post that “LAUSD schools are closed today due to credible threat” until 7:24. A message posted on Facebook at 7:19 cryptically stated that “all students are safe” immediately followed by “every school being searched by appropriate personnel.” The Twitter message was then reposted. Text messages should also be the first form of direct emergency communication as they can be sent quickly. Studies show that text messages have a higher response rate than email and this is the best way to give “customers quick and easy access to information”. The District also needs to be plugged into the same emergency alert system that provides notifications directly to cell phones with an appropriate alarm. Certainly the safety of students in the country’s second largest school system should be given the same priority as a flash flood warning.

The potential of an emergency situation also exposed one of the problems with allowing 187 charter schools to act as their own independent school districts within the confines of the LAUSD. While the Superintendent was able to close the district schools because he felt the students were in danger, he could only “ask” that the charters do the same. This left uncertainty in the minds of parents as they waited to receive messages from each individual school rather than relying on the blanket statement issued for the District run schools. In an emergency situation, one person has to be able to take responsibility for running the entire public school system.

Finally, the behavior of Board Member Mónica García during this crisis needs to be addressed. At a time when parents needed information and students needed assurance, García was caught on live TV saying this was her opportunity to “be a Mexican Oprah.” Hopefully, her colleagues on the Board do not need to be told that a crisis is a time for “no jokes, no jokes” and will have their game face on even if they do not think that they have an audience. This time the threat may have turned out to be a hoax, but the next natural or manmade disaster may bring actual harm. A serious study of the mistakes that were made this time is the only way to prevent the same results during the next crisis.