School Climate & Safety

Five Factors Leaders Consider Before Closing Schools to Respond to Threats

By Evie Blad — December 16, 2015 5 min read
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The nation’s two largest districts made headlines Tuesday when they responded very differently to similar threats to their schools.

What can other districts learn from this?

New York City, with the assistance of its police force, quickly deemed the threat, sent under the guise of Islamic extremism, to be a hoax and opted to keep schools open. Among the questionable elements of the message was the fact that that Allah was spelled with a lowercase “a.”

Los Angeles Unified, on the other hand, opted to close its 900 schools for the day so that police and district officials could scour every building for signs of explosives or danger. Schools resumed Wednesday after officials determined the threat was not credible.

Closing a school or even a district to respond to a security threat is not completely unheard of, but its rare to see school systems of this size respond to such issues in such a public and conflicting manner.

New York leaders, defensive of their decision to keep schools open, said it would be “an overreaction” to close them. Los Angeles Unified leaders, put on defense by those remarks, said they would not have felt comfortable opening the district’s schools given the recent mass shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., which seem to have been inspired by ISIS.

District leaders must navigate decisions like this all the time, processing issues ranging from troubling social media postings to icy streets in deciding whether to cancel classes.

But this is a particularly difficult climate for such decisions, especially if the threats leaders must review are tied to possible terrorism. A recent Gallup poll shows that American concern about terrorism has reached its highest point in 10 years after shootings in San Bernardino and Paris.

“In the survey completed last week, the percentage of Americans who said terror was the most critical problem [the country faces] jumped 13 points, from 3 to 16 percent,” the Washington Post reported. “That’s about one-sixth of the country.”

Education leaders are trained in many things, but determining the credibility of threats doesn’t seem to be included in any prep programs. So Los Angeles and New York had to weigh the very real concerns of parents against some big practical issues cities of that size face when schools are suddenly closed.

Here are just a few things leaders must weigh when deciding whether to close schools:

The Impact of Closures on Poor Students

With the sudden cancellation of school comes a scramble for child care. In lower income households, that can mean parents skipping work and forgoing a day’s wages or leaving a child home alone.

Low-income students also rely heavily on school breakfasts, lunches, and even sometimes dinners for much of their nutritional intake. Some large cities weigh this fact when cancelling schools for snow days.

The Nature and Scale of the Threat

It’s easier than ever for mischievously minded people to disrupt a school, a district, or even a university thanks to anonymous messaging apps like Yik Yak and Whisper, which allow users to post anonymous statements that are linked to a geographic location.

Colorado’s school safety tip line, considered one of the most effective in the country, works with law enforcement officials to quickly process threats shared electronically through texts, online messages, even in video game chatrooms.

Also, many threats that lead school systems to cancel classes are targeted at one school, which limits the disruption. That’s much different from the message Los Angeles received, which disrupted daily life for the entire city.

The Cost of Closures

It’s not cheap to close schools.

“Although the school district could technically be subject to a loss of $29 million in per-pupil funding for closing campuses, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said that he is certain the district would not be docked those funds,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

But lost learning time can also be difficult for students to regain, especially if they were already behind when they missed a day.

Public Perception Changes Responses

If there had been greater public knowledge of the L.A. threat, would some worried parents have opted to keep their kids home, regardless of the district’s decision?

In contrasting the two large cities’ responses, two things stick out to me:

  • New York schools are governed by the city, but Los Angeles schools are not, so L.A. Superintendent Ramon Cortines had more authority to make the closure call.
  • California was recently the site of a high-profile attack that changed the international political discourse.

Of course, parents in L.A. only learned of the threat when they were told their children wouldn’t be attending school that day, but it’s clear from Cortines’ statements to the media that possible parents’ concerns weighed heavy in his mind when he made his decision.

Local Factors Change Everything

In smaller districts, particularly those in colder Northern climates, it’s not unusual to cancel classes at every school for high snow fall, icy roads, even a particularly low windchilll that makes it risky for little ones to bundle up and head out the door. Consequently, families are a lot more accustomed to shifting their plans at the last minute.

But few school systems face the logistical challenges of a district the size of Los Angeles when they make the decision to close. For one, the district teaches more than 640,000 students. For another, it’s geographically large, spanning 720 square miles of the city and many unincorporated areas.

And Los Angeles parents haven’t trained for this moment by quickly responding to snow days. Tuesday’s was the first systemwide closure since the Northridge earthquake in 1994, the Times reported.

What do you think? Was the decision to close a case of better safe than sorry? Or was it an overreaction? What other factors should school leaders consider when they must make quick calls like this?

Photo: Los Angeles School Police officer Alex Camarillo, far left, and school officials welcome area students heading back to school at the Edward R. Roybal Learning Center Wednesday in Los Angeles. --Damian Dovarganes/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.