For the 700,000 students in Miami-Dade and Broward public schools, it was just another day in class. For school leaders, it was a day of decisions and vigilance.
South Florida schools opened their doors Thursday morning despite threats — deemed “less than credible” — that had been sent in emails similar to ones sent to Los Angeles and New York earlier this week. The email to Miami-Dade school leaders threatened to blow up campus buildings with pressure cookers placed inside backpacks.
Sources familiar with the emails and the ongoing federal investigation said that investigators dismissed the legitimacy of the four-paragraph statements — which told of rifles, guns and explosives — because they were too general and contained grammatical errors.
The emails, which sources said originated from somewhere in Europe, were sent directly to South Florida School Board members, whose email addresses are public record. Also receiving similar emails on Thursday were school districts in Orlando, Houston, Dallas and other cities in California.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho met with reporters Thursday morning on the ninth-floor command center of the downtown Miami school district headquarters. He urged parents to send their kids to school, saying procedures were in place that would protect them. Attendance was down slightly.
Carvalho said despite the dismissal of the threat, several campuses were swept with the help of police dogs, and some of the grounds were cordoned off well before students arrived. The superintendent also said that extra officers were deployed at some schools through the day.
“We ought to be vigilant. We ought to be aware and prepared, but not fearful,” Carvalho said. “Sadly, this is becoming the new normal. I think we need to be ready. Say something if you see something. But we cannot be afraid to resume our lives.”
Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie also tried to allay any fears.
“One of the things I don't want to do in Broward County is to create anxiety and hysteria over hoaxes we see in the county,” he said. “We should not disrupt our normal patterns, activities and way of life in Broward County when we don't see any credible threat that has been made.”
Both school boards sent email blasts to parents encouraging them to send their kids to class and calling the threats “less than credible.”
Despite the assurances, some parents remained on edge, declaring — many through social media — that they had no intention of sending their children to school. Most, though, showed trust in the decision to swing open school doors.
Miami-Dade’s Juan Pollo said he sent his two kids to school on Thursday. “Same reason I go out every day knowing that I may be struck by lightning.”
Though South Florida school leaders did not release the threatening email, the Houston district released the email it received, and several media outlets published the threat sent to L.A. schools.
The four-paragraph statement to Los Angeles schools begins with “Something big is going down.” The writer then goes on to say that the last four years at the school district — without naming a specific district — “has been absolute hell.” The note also refers to rifles, guns and explosives, and that schools throughout Los Angeles would be leveled. It ends with “I wish you the best of luck.”
New York Police Commissioner William Bratton told the New York Times that the email seemed to come straight from an episode of the Showtime drama Homeland, which focuses on the CIA and terrorism.
A law enforcement official told the Times on Wednesday that the email was discredited for several reasons, including the spelling of Allah with a lowercase A. On Thursday, Houston school officials said the spelling of Allah had been corrected. Miami-Dade Schools Police wouldn’t release the letter or comment directly on it.
The investigator who spoke to the New York Times also said the email was considered a hoax in part because it was not specific to places and it threatened all 900 schools in New York.
Miami-Dade school district officials estimate that attendance was slightly lower on Thursday. About 6,000 more children stayed home than the same school day last year. And though the drop wasn’t that steep, students were affected in other ways.
On Thursday, second-graders from Southside Elementary School near Brickell planned to visit Arcola Lake Elementary in Northwest Miami-Dade as part of a diversity training program that had been in the works for a month.
Students had written letters to each other and were going to share pizza, drinks and games. Santa Claus was heading there, too. But the field trip was canceled, said Arcola kindergarten teacher Jackie Gil, who has 23 students.
“They weren’t able to meet the other children,” she said. “That’s the whole point. My babies are only 5. That kind of ruined it for us.”
This article includes comments from the Public insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their insights with the Miami Herald and WLRN. Become a source at MiamiHerald.com/insight.