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Usable Knowledge

How Schools Respond to Threats

Superintendents should draw on a strong team and a foundation of community trust when making decisions
computerized image of many green email icons with one red icon

Amid a wave of bomb threats directed at schools, with nerves frayed by fears of mass shootings and terrorism in San Bernardino, Paris, and Beirut, superintendents have been on the hot seat. When Los Angeles and New York City received similar emailed threats but made opposing decisions — LA choosing to close its system for a day, New York remaining open, calling the threats a hoax — it cast a spotlight on how school leaders make decisions, and whether there’s a right way or a wrong way to proceed in times of uncertainty.

Usable Knowledge asked HGSE Professor Andrés Alonso, former superintendent of the Baltimore City Public Schools, to talk about how things look from the inside.

As a superintendent, how do you make the decision to close schools or districts — or open them — in response to a threat?

First of all, a superintendent isn’t making a decision like this on his or her own, especially in large cities, where the school system is embedded in many other systems that are servicing kids and families. You make decisions about closing schools, in normal circumstances, with city hall, with the police and transportation department — as part of a team that is thinking about how the city functions. You’re changing the entire flow of what’s happening in a city on a given day.  A terrorist threat is not a normal circumstance, which makes it more imperative that you work as part of a team that is thinking about the entire city.

But the decision should be part of the same protocol that helps shape more ordinary decisions around closing schools. In every year, in every school system, you’re going to have to make a set of calls around closing or opening schools where you could be right or you could be wrong. Most of the time you’re going to have 50 percent of the people happy and the other 50 percent of the people unhappy. Whether it’s snow, water main breaks, Halloween pranks — no matter what you do, you’re going to have a sector of the community that thinks that you acted in the wrong way, because it impacted their lives in a negative sense. Here, the stakes are incredibly higher. If the protocols are off, then you compound what is already fraught and extraordinary.

What factors do you weigh when you make these decisions?

The safety of children always comes first. But because there are no guarantees, you are also weighing families and home care, you’re weighing children who are eligible for free and reduced meals and their access to food, you’re weighing issues with teachers and their travel and their ability to get to school and deal with their own family responsibilities in an emergency.

So there are going to be dilemmas. Normally, you have a bias toward keeping schools open and keeping kids in schools. That should be the default. Kids generally are safest at school. On the other hand, there are going to be some circumstances where that’s not true.

In every circumstance, you are going to go with your judgment — that it’s a hoax or it’s a prank or you’re only going to get three inches of snow instead of 12. Sometimes you’re going to be wrong. But I would always rather be wrong in a way that protects the safety of the children. The challenge, of course, is that you have a lot of parents and a lot of children who are counting on schools being open.

The type of decision facing Los Angeles and New York and other districts in recent days seems unique and new because of the threat of political, mass violence — and because it’s happening in a climate that is highly sensitized to that threat of violence. That makes it even more imperative that you’re making decisions in the context of a team of people who are making the best judgment at a specific point in time, with a specific set of facts, bringing expertise that you and your staff might not have.

Is there a right decision at times like this?

I don’t think there’s a right decision or a wrong decision. The wrong decision would be to open schools and have something happen that impacts the safety of kids. So much depends on the information that a police department or the FBI might have. You obviously can’t close schools anytime someone makes a phone call. But you have to weigh the evidence you have, consult with people who have the best information to make a shared decision, then go with your informed judgment and your gut about what has to happen.

How do you talk with your community about your decisions — especially if those decisions draw criticism?

You should always be in communication with your community about your decisions. You should be in constant conversation about the whys and the hows. It shouldn’t just be about these fraught situations when you have national attention focused on one decision. It should a part of everything that you do. If you’ve established that constant, two-way communication as a routine element of what you do, then you build trust, and trust is critical in these situations.

As a superintendent, how do you help parents and students feel safe?

I think there’s more of an imperative to have that kind of conversation if you actually close schools and then reopen them again. If you keep school open, you’re basically telling people that you already believe that they are safe. 

Again, I think that this is part of a much wider conversation than just a school system. If there is potential for that kind of damage to schools, there is potential for that kind of damage to every other civic institution.

Unfortunately we are at a moment in time where we’re having to have those kinds of conversations. I was in New York during 2001, and part of what was interesting then was the extraordinary will on the part of the communities surrounding Manhattan to come back to a kind of normality. We had this inescapable proof that something really terrible had happened, that had cost thousands of lives, and yet the overwhelming feeling on the part of people in New York City and surrounding communities was that we had to keep going. I think now, it’s the sense that something might happen, and we don’t know what it is, that’s causing anxiety and confusion about the best way to act. I find the contrast very interesting. People in positions of responsibility are going to need to work together in order to make the right decisions.

Talk about how you managed similar decisions in Baltimore.

In Baltimore, we had protocols around the decision to open and close schools in relationship to a set of potential events — whether it was ice on the streets, snow, buildings that were too hot or too cold, a potential hazmat situation in a school, a lockdown of a neighborhood because of crime, or what have you. We dealt with all of these situations at one point or another.

We had a police department in our school system, and our police would get in touch with city police and fire. We had an operations department that was responsible for evacuating schools, for cleaning schools, for transportation – they were in touch with their city counterparts. If we were going to close the schools, we wanted teachers and principals to know in advance, and we had agreed on specific times for that to happen. We also had communication protocols in place for parents, and we had protocols around media and around transportation. There were public channels for communicating with the community, and there were school-specific communication trees.  The access to information in case schools closed was transparent, widely known, and clearly understood.  If we didn’t follow these protocols, we were taken to task.

We also had an established understanding that before we made decisions about closing and opening, the chief of police and the head of transportation and the mayor’s chief of staff were given a head’s up and an opportunity to be briefed on the decision. They had to brief other public officials.

If I had been the superintendent in Baltimore and we had gotten that threat, I would have been on the phone with the mayor, and in a case of such magnitude, I would have asked the mayor and the two police departments to involve the FBI right away, if they had not already done so. I would have relied on my team’s advice about communication and timing, and I would have relied on their best judgment about the reliability and the credibility of the threat, with an understanding that this is something we were going to deal with together. Then, based upon the information they brought to me, I would have consulted with the head of my board and with my union presidents. I would have communicated with the state commissioner of education, and I would probably have consulted with the surrounding districts, since any decision I made was going to have an impact on the surrounding counties. We shared teachers and in some cases kids.

It’s a highly complex decision, and always the safest course of action is to close. The risk is always on opening.

Some have criticized the LA schools for the decision to close. What’s your perspective?

Without having specific information or being part of those decisions, I think it’s irresponsible to criticize someone for choosing to close schools. Of course, you need to have the real-world understanding that you’re always going to be making these decisions, and you can’t close schools every day of the year because people are saying terrible things are going to happen. You would be surprised how often districts have to make judgments about safety, even if not to this degree of risk.

As a superintendent, you have to know that this is the kind of call where you’ll have a lot of backseat driving. People are always going to be responding to what you do after the fact. Hopefully, as in this case in Los Angeles, they are going to be responding when nothing has happened.

You’d rather take the hit and say, as I think Ramon Cortines did in Los Angeles, "I made the call to the best of my abilities, and as always, I’m accountable." And if you’ve done your job in advance with the community and your partners, you’re going to have plenty of people who are going to be there with you saying, "The superintendent made the right decision."


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