The nation’s second-largest public school system, Los Angeles Unified School District, shut down on Tuesday after receiving what was deemed a “credible threat” of violence via email. New York schools, the country’s largest district, faced a very similar threat in the same timeframe, but remained open having deemed the written contents of the email they received suspiciously amateurish. New York officials also had the critical advantage of learning of the LA threat while they were assessing their own. Los Angeles, still reeling from attacks two weeks before in San Bernardino, had no such information on its counterparts across the country. And it remains unclear whether the emailed threats were the work of pranksters or possibly a test by individuals with more sinister intent to gauge public safety responses to the threats. And today, we learned that similar threats were also sent to South Florida, Houston and Dallas on Wednesday evening and two school districts in Indiana shut down due to threats. Whether these threats were “credible” or not, it’s a relief to us that the staff and students in all regions remain safe. But we hope these incidents are instructive to schools across the nation. Sadly, the threat of terrorism in schools is real, as we discussed in our two-part blog series earlier this year. Worldwide terror in schools has been dramatically rising since 2004 and there is evidence that the San Bernardino terrorists may have had plans to attack a local school. Moreover, the mastermind behind last month’s multiple gun and bomb attacks in Paris reportedly also planned attacks on schools and other targets. We work with schools across the country to help make their campuses safer, but most schools still lack a basic ability to monitor threats in real time and to build an understanding of their own vulnerabilities. Just as with the schools we serve in Florida and LA, we first recommend schools undergo thorough safety assessments to identify all the possible crime and safety weaknesses spanning building infrastructure, physical security, safety policies and emergency planning procedures. With this baseline of knowledge, schools can implement the procedures, physical changes and technologies that will make them better equipped to prevent and respond to threats. Another important argument we have been making is for better information sharing – not just within the various school safety stakeholder agencies within a district, but also across districts. LA made absolutely the best decision it could in the time it had and with the information it had at hand, but had the major districts across the nation been in the habit of reaching out to each other during major unfolding events it may have allowed the two largest school districts in the country to realize that each had received the same threat at the same time from an individual claiming to be in both places at once – and to stand down on that basis alone. There are a number of ways the Haystax School Safety Center could improve responses in situations like Los Angeles, including the following.
- Our Threat Streams tool can pick up on threat-related information on Twitter and from other digital media sources. School safety officials in LA could have received instantaneous ‘flash’ alerts when a threat of major significance was identified. This is viewable either in a list view or on the digital map module that is included with the School Safety Center, helping them create better response plans in real-time.
- Once the decision was made to close the LA schools, our Asset app storing each school’s floor plans could have been called up to map out the ensuing campus-by-campus search for backpacks or other unattended packages.
- If a search team found a suspicious item, it could have used our School Safety Reporter mobile app to send data, geolocation information and a photo of the item to an analyst to determine whether or not it posed a threat. Or, once a school was searched and declared threat-free, the search team could have sent an alert via the School Safety Reporter. Subsequently, regular updated reports could have been generated for district and law enforcement leadership showing the number of schools cleared as time went on.
School safety stakeholders face an especially challenging mission – to provide a safe and nurturing environment where kids can learn and develop. We believe School Safety Center is an important component of a more comprehensive approach to school safety, providing risk analytics, incident reporting and digital media monitoring – and information sharing – that allow schools to find the right threat signals amidst all the noise, and respond with greater confidence.