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Four things to know about assessing threats like the one that closed LA schools

A USC terrorism expert discusses what officials need to examine when deciding how to respond

Van Nuys High School
Van Nuys High School is seen in this 2008 photo. (Photo/ WhisperToMe via Wikimedia)

The Los Angeles Unified School District — the nation’s second-largest district — canceled classes today in response to an emailed threat of violence and bombs. Erroll Southers, associate director of the USC Homeland Security Center for Risk, Economic Analysis and Terrorism Events and an adjunct professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy, said such decisions require careful threat assessment.

Four processes are critical for determining an appropriate response, Southers said:

1. Specificity of the threat

Officials must determine whether the threat includes specific details about the time, place or location of the event. They also must determine if it has specifically targeted a certain place, someone or several people. “Those kinds of elements make the threat more or less credible,” Southers said.

2. Investigation

Determine the source of the threat and its origin. “With today’s social media, it’s easy for people to disseminate a threat,” Southers said.

“In today’s world, unfortunately, any kind of threat like this always has to be considered a possible terrorist-related threat until proven that it’s not,” he said. “It’s easier for us to assume that there’s a nexus to terrorism at the onset.“

It’s better to err on the side of caution. “We can always dial down. You don’t ever want to have to dial up,” he said.

3. Notification

The organization that received the threat needs to inform others, such as staff and faculty, as well as contact cooperating agencies to notify them of the threat. “Organizations will activate their emergency notification system,” Southers said.

4. Life safety

“This element is paramount to all the others. You want to determine and remove people who are in harm’s way,” Southers said.

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