Closing schools on the basis of an unverified threat causes too much disruption, makes public wary of their officials, says Juliette Kayyem
Threats have to be weighed carefully and responses must be measured, she says
Editor’s Note: Juliette Kayyem, a CNN national security analyst, is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. She is the host of the “Security Mom” podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
The decision by Los Angeles Unified School Superintendent Ramon Cortines to close the entire district Tuesday because of what was called a “credible threat of violence” was unprecedented in its scope and magnitude.
With that single decision, almost 700,00 students and over 83,000 teachers and staff were told to stay home Tuesday morning. The secondary consequences were immeasurable: Parents or guardians had to respond to care for children staying home and that meant, for many, skipping work, disrupting business and failing to live up to commitments.
New York City, which received similar threats, decided to take the opposite approach, assessing that the email communications were without basis and merely a hoax. And the tale of two cities led many to speculate that Los Angeles overreacted. The blame came fast. Yet those who defended the decision argued that, in light of the threat environment, it is better to be safe than sorry.
But is that true? Can every or any response to a potential threat be justified simply because something bad could happen if it was ignored? The simple answer is no. That is no way to live. Imagine the world we would inhabit if every loner or loser who sent an email or text with a threat, however specific, could halt an entire school system or city. As importantly, it is not how public safety officials actually train or plan for the world we live in.
First responders talk, often endlessly, about how they train and exercise for a potential attack. They drill and drill, practice and practice, because they know that in a real life situation the fog of war can take hold. They practice protocols for decision making and work across disciplines to ensure a high degree of community input so that important stakeholders are represented at the table.
And they do so not simply to make the best decisions or have the most life-saving responses, but also so that the public will have continuing confidence in their public safety officials when they are asked to assist. They know, more than the public does, that part of their job is to make judgment calls, to weigh counterfactuals, and to do so in a way that is professional and rigorous.
Intelligence assessments are more art than science as officials determine how best to weigh threats against the backdrop of attacks in Paris and San Bernardino.
As someone who has been in the room weighing inconclusive evidence, criticism of Cortines’ decision seems too easy. But the defensiveness of many of the public officials at the press conference – focusing more on the naysayers than on the public or schools – was equally unhelpful. Instead, an honest accounting is in order. And that accounting has to focus less on the decision itself, and more on the process that led to such a disruptive day.
Fairly then, by day’s end, there was considerable speculation about the process that Cortines followed, including how many people knew of his decision, how many people were engaged in the internal discussions which were not unanimous, and how soon the LAPD and the mayor’s office knew of the decision.
The school system is a separate governance system than the city itself, but that difference matters little to the children and parents impacted by the closure. The public expects unity of government and they deserve it in such important decisions as the one Cortines made.
The future of our homeland security, in an age when mayhem can happen anywhere, depends on an engaged citizenry willing to stay home when told to stay home. It also depends on American citizens accepting a certain level of risk and preparing themselves for that potential. We do it all the time when we think of natural disasters; I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and we drilled and practiced earthquake planning regularly at home.
Terrorism should be no different. But engaging citizens also depends on rigorous adherence to the very systems that the citizenry depends on to make such consequential decisions.
Too many false calls will make citizens immune to real threats. Too many process failures will make citizens wary of government’s capacity for competency. And this will lead to their disengagement from their own homeland security. This last point is exactly what L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti rightfully addressed at the end of his statement: We must still engage with protecting ourselves regardless of what assessments will be made about the school closures.
In a world where threats must always be weighed, where mayhem is always present, these public safety systems of prevention and response are in place to maximize safety while protecting our society’s vibrancy and openness.
It is, theoretically, better to be safe than sorry. But we don’t live in a theoretical world.