Thursday, December 24, 2015


by Jay Matthews, Education Columnist, The Washington Post |
My wife, Linda, and I had an argument about the New York public schools staying open and the Los Angeles public schools closing when both got wild threats from what appeared to be the same source. 
I thought the New York school administrators were wise to follow their police experts, who said the threat was not credible. It appears that the Los Angeles police experts also thought that their threat was bogus, but the school superintendent closed the schools anyway. I thought that wasted learning time and set a bad precedent.

Linda, though, was born in San Bernardino County, scene of the massacre of 14 people by Muslim extremists two weeks ago, and she has many family members there yet. She thought the L.A. schools were right to close, despite the false threat, because parents would be too afraid to send their kids to school.

Eventually, I saw her point. School leaders must be gentle with upset parents, whose fears are self-correcting. A series of threats is unlikely to bring more closings because parents will realize someone is trying to manipulate them. Real school attackers almost never announce themselves. A federal study of 1,055 bomb incidents in schools between 1990 and 2002 found that just 14 were accompanied by a warning to schools or other authorities.
I decided that school leaders who show an abundance of caution do what is best for their systems.

But I missed something. When I contacted Kenneth Trump, who has been advising school districts on safety issues for decades, he gently explained why Los Angeles had blown it.

“The best practice is to assess and then react, not react and then assess,” he said. “School leaders should be very conservative in evacuating and closing schools if there is not a credible threat. When you evacuate or close schools, you lose the ability to supervise children and to keep them secure.”

He said school officials are not explaining to parents, prior to a threat, “why it is less safe to evacuate or close schools and more safe to keep kids in schools under heightened security and supervision while they investigate. Instead, superintendents, principals and boards are doing just what we saw in L.A.: responding to the emotional and political climate.”

Trump reviewed 812 school threats across the country from August through December 2014. Of those threats, 44 percent involved bombs and 29 percent involved guns. Almost all were hoaxes. Trump thinks that the number of false threats is increasing and that more planning and information to parents are needed so that we have less panic and fewer copy-cat threats.

Will that work? I can see the value of explaining the dangers of closing schools, particularly to parents who depend on public education for child care. I wager that children on average have more people watching out for them in school than at home. Arranging a babysitter on short notice can be expensive. Taking your children to work can be inconvenient.

But will dispensing such information at a time of jangled nerves, such as they are nowadays, be taken in the spirit it was offered? I can hear the question at a PTA meeting: Do you want our children at school when some maniac is driving around with assault weapons?

Most of us realize that our reactions to events like the carnage in San Bernardino are not rational. Research has shown that we tend to be less afraid of circumstances in which we think we are in control, such as driving a car, than situations in which we are not, such as riding in an airplane. Yet automobiles produce far more fatalities per miles traveled than airplanes do.

CNN reported the chances of being killed by terrorists are infinitesimal. Death by lightning is four times more likely.

We understand the math. We are rational creatures. It is hard to think about our children in that way, but it is worth a try. School districts should do their best to explain the real dangers of threats that are almost always false.

Matthews misses one key point.  
The ultimate decision to not close the schools in New York City was made by the Mayor of New York - a politician. The decision to close the schools in LAUSD was made by the Superintendent - an educator.

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