Hoax Bomb Threat Bedevils Los Angeles

     LOS ANGELES (CN) – LA officials admitted Tuesday that a bomb threat against LA schools was no longer credible – a conclusion officials in New York quickly arrived at after receiving a similar emailed threat.
     At a 5:30 p.m. press conference Tuesday at Los Angeles Unified School district headquarters downtown, Mayor Eric Garcetti declined to label the email as a “hoax.” He noted that while the FBI had concluded that there was no credible threat, it “does not conclusively mean it’s one thing or another yet.”
     “What we do know is that it will be safe for children to return to school tomorrow,” Garcetti said, noting that the city had been on high alert because of the mass shooting in San Bernardino that killed 14 and injured 22 on Dec. 2.
     “I know there’s been a lot of back and forth between cities and stuff,” Garcetti said in reference to New York’s response to the threat, but added that the East Coast city had received the information much later than Los Angeles and was “already able to put together pieces” of information to conclude the threat was not credible.
     School district president Steve Zimmer told reporters that more than 1,000 school sites had been walked through and inspected and said that schools would reopen on Wednesday.
     “There will always be a temptation after a day like today to increase the blame, anger, vitriol and the suspicion. But what we saw today across Los Angeles was a community turning toward each other, not against each other,” Zimmer said.
     Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck confirmed that the email was sent from a server in Germany but could have originated closer to the United States.
     Though the email sent to New York officials came from the same overseas server the email was not identical, Beck said. He noted that the LAPD had already served subpoenas and the investigation was ongoing.
     Beck said also supported Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Ramon Cortines’ decision to close schools, although he stressed that he had not made the decision. He said he had asked parents if they would have opened the schools if they were faced with the same information that Cortines had possessed.
     “Every parent I have asked said, ‘No, of course not,'” Beck said.
     In a written statement, Cortines said the decision to close the schools for the first time in decades was “not made lightly.”
     “It disrupted the lives of our students, our employees and their families,” Cortines said. “Based on recent events, I took precaution out of an abundance of caution and to ensure safety and security in our schools.”
     Tuesday morning, Garcetti, Beck and LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell all voiced their support for Cortines’ decision to close the schools at a press conference at district headquarters.
     By early afternoon, however, U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat representing Los Angeles, confirmed that it appeared the threat was a hoax.
     “The investigation into LAUSD threat is still ongoing,” Schiff said in a statement. “Preliminary assessment is it was a hoax to disrupt school districts in large cities.”
     Officials scrambled to defend their decision to shut down the second-largest school district in the nation and keep nearly 700,000 students at home, after receiving a threat that was emailed from an IP address in Frankfurt, Germany.
     Authorities learned of the threat Monday evening and immediately notified the FBI.
     Beck confirmed at the press conference that the threat was to multiple schools in the school district, and mentioned backpacks containing explosives and assault rifles.
     The decision to close down more than 1000 schools will costs millions of dollars and placed a burden on working families abruptly forced to arrange care for their children. State Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson said the cost to the district could be as high as $29 million.
     But the costs went beyond mere inconvenience and disruption.
     An accident attributable to the decision to close schools claimed the life of a 17-year-old male student who was killed when a city service truck hit him at around 7:30 a.m., as he crossed a street in Highland Park.
     Right around that time, panicked parents were warned of a “credible terror threat” and an announcement that all schools would close for the day.
     Against this backdrop, New York’s mayor and police commissioner said a city school official had received the same threat.
     But authorities concluded that it was a hoax, likening the threat to a storyline on the television series “Homeland.”
     “There was nothing credible about the threat,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “It was so generic, so outlandish and posed to numerous school systems simultaneously.”
     New York City Police Department Commissioner Bill Bratton said the threat mirrored recent episodes of the hit FX series, “Homeland.”
     “It is not something that we are concerned with. What we would be concerned with is overreacting to it,” Bratton said, voicing concern that LA’s decision to shut down its school system could encourage copycat cases.
     Bratton told reporters that he learned from authorities that the email lowercased the first letter of “Allah,” the Arabic word for God.
     “The language in the email would lead us to believe that this is not a jihadist initiative,” he said. “That would be incredible to think that any jihadist would not spell Allah with a capital ‘A.'”
     In the morning, Beck hit back at the statements coming from the East Coast, calling the comments “irresponsible.”
     “All of us make tough choices. All of us have the same goal in mind, to keep the kids safe,” Beck told reporters.
     Beck and Garcetti appeared to hedge their bets in the morning by stopping short of claiming responsibility for the decision. Both confirmed that while they supported Cortines, it was ultimately his call.
     “The decision to close the schools is not mine to make but it is mine to support,” Garcetti said.
     Though LA officials came under fire, the White House declined to criticize the city.
     Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that President Barack Obama was notified of the district’s action but said the White House would not “second-guess the decisions that are made by local law enforcement officials in any community across the country.”
     “Ultimately, these individuals are making these decisions based on information that they’ve received and based on their knowledge of what they believe is in the best interest of their community. And obviously they would know better than anyone else,” Earnest said during an afternoon press briefing.
     But Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Krekorian told the LA Times that city officials have a “lot to learn from” the events of the day.
     “If it does turn out to be a hoax, it has cost millions of dollars and it’s outrageous,” Krekorian said. “And someone needs to be held accountable and brought to justice for it.”
     But in an editorial, the Times said it supported the decision to close down the entire school system and send students home.
     “The email could be a hoax,” the editorial staff wrote. “It could be a childish prank to get students out of final exams, or simply a mean-spirited effort to force more than a million people to change their patterns today out of fear.
     “No matter. Even if there are no explosives-laden backpacks, no mysterious packages and no actual plan to harm children, the online threats that led to the closure Tuesday of every Los Angeles Unified school and preschool demonstrate for Angelenos what it means to be terrorized.”
     In a statement the district said, “The safety of all children in the Los Angeles Unified School District is our number one priority. As you have been informed, all schools in LAUSD were closed today for precautionary reasons in response to threats that are being investigated.”
     District spokeswoman Shannon Haber told reporters that walk-throughs were happening in 900 campuses and over 100 charter schools.
     The district partnered with 13 agencies to investigate the threats, including the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, California Highway Patrol, the Departments of Police Services at the University of California and Cal State-Northridge, and the police departments from Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Fernando, Bell, Gardena, Hawthorne, Huntington Park, Inglewood and South Gate.
     “We cannot provide details of the walk-throughs because that could jeopardize the integrity of our operation,” the district said in a statement at 1:30 p.m.
     The district canceled all after school programs, including sports, clubs and community access centers.
     At the evening press conference, officials confirmed that the schools would reopen tomorrow as normal.
     Garcetti, Cortines and Beckwere joined by Torlakson, Zimmer, LA Schools Police Chief Steven Zipperman and members of the LA Unified School Board.
     Cortines, 83, said earlier this year he will step down as superintendent at the end of this month. His replacement has not yet been chosen.

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