Tuesday 20 March 2018

LA defends decision to shut down schools terrorism threat email

A Los Angeles Unified School District bus driver walks past parked vehicles at a bus garage in Gardena, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015.
A Los Angeles Unified School District bus driver walks past parked vehicles at a bus garage in Gardena, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015.

Los Angeles has defended its controversial decision to shut more than 1,000 schools after America's two biggest education authorities received threats of a large-scale jihadi attack with guns and bombs.

The threat was also made to New York City - which dismissed the warning as an amateurish hoax.

But in an extremely rare move, Los Angeles reacted by shutting down the entire school district, reflecting the lingering unease in Southern California following the terrorist attack that killed 14 people at an office lunch two weeks ago in San Bernardino.

In LA, the threat came in the form of an email to a school board member. Authorities in New York reported receiving the same "generic" email but decided there was no danger to schoolchildren, with mayor Bill de Blasio concluding that the threat contained "nothing credible".

"It was so outlandish," he said.

New York police commissioner William Bratton agreed, quipping that it looked like the sender of the threat had watched a lot of the Showtime cable TV terrorism drama Homeland.

Mr Bratton, who once ran the LA Police Department, called the closure in Los Angeles a "significant over-reaction".

"We cannot allow ourselves to raise levels of fear," he said.

The LA shutdown abruptly closed more than 900 public schools and 187 charter schools attended by 640,000 youngsters across the city. More than 1,500 buildings were searched.

LA officials defended the move, with the city's police chief condemning the criticism as "irresponsible".

"It is very easy in hindsight to criticise a decision based on results the decider could never have known," Charlie Beck said.

Southern California, he said, "has been through a lot in the recent weeks. Should we risk putting our children through the same?".

The city later announced that schools would reopen today, with increased police patrols outside campuses. Mayor Eric Garcetti said the FBI had concluded that the threat was not credible.

The threatening 360-word email, seen by the Associated Press news agency, was sent to the New York City school superintendent and warned that schools would be attacked with pressure cooker bombs, nerve agents and machine guns. It claimed the writer and "138 comrades" would carry out the attack.

Pupils "at every school in the New York City school district will be massacred, mercilessly. And there is nothing you can do to stop it", the message said.

The anonymous writer claimed to be a student at a district high school who had been bullied. The person also claimed to be a jihadist but made errors that suggested the writer was really a prankster, including spelling the word "Allah" with a lower-case "a'' and making no reference to the Koran.

The threats came in simultaneously to New York and LA school officials at about 1.20am on Tuesday in New York and 10.20pm Monday in Los Angeles.

In LA, the school board member who received the threat immediately contacted school district police, Detective Rudy Perez said.

Across the country, a New York schools superintendent who received the threat was asleep and did not notice the email until 5.08am. By 6.30am, the message was sent to the New York Police Department.

An hour later, New York pupils began arriving at school, and by about 9.30am investigators had ruled the threat a hoax.

The decision to close Los Angeles schools was announced around the same time, at 6.25am local time.

Los Angeles schools superintendent Ramon Cortines said every campus would be searched before buildings reopened.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said he would not second-guess the decisions made in Los Angeles or New York.

The sudden, complete closure disrupted the routines of many Los Angeles families.

Lupita Vela, who has a daughter in the third grade and a son who is a high school senior, called the threat "absolutely terrifying" in light of the San Bernardino attack.

"I know the kids are anxious," she said.

The LA schools commonly get threats, but Mr Cortines called this one rare and said the San Bernardino attack influenced his decision to close the entire district.

The threat "was not to one school, two schools or three schools", he said. "It was many schools, not specifically identified. That's the reason I took the action that I did."

The person who sent the threat used an "anonymiser", which uses a proxy server to mask the origin of internet traffic, and the email was routed through a German IP address, according to a law enforcement official briefed on the investigation.

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