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L.A. School District Closed after Threats; L.A. School Closings Same Day as Republican Debate; Interview with Rick Santorum. Aired 11- 11:30a ET

Aired December 15, 2015 - 11:00   ET



[11:00:15] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm John Berman.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan.

We're live in Las Vegas, outside the Venetian, the site of tonight's CNN Republican presidential debate. The candidates will start to arrive any minute now. What could be a make-or-break moment for many of them is just hours away.

BERMAN: New this morning, Donald Trump domination. A new poll showing him more than 20 points ahead of the rest of the Republican field. This is his biggest lead yet. We're going to go inside the debate hall, the Venetian Theater behind us, in just a moment.

But first, we do have breaking news out of Los Angeles. The second- largest school system in the country has been shut down over a threat, over half a million students.

BOLDUAN: Huge and very scary moment for everyone involved. Just moments ago, the superintendent of the Los Angeles schools, he explained his decision to shut down the entire school district. Now, we will say this. A lot of details are not -- have not come in yet. This is a developing situation. But the superintendent did say it was not just one, but many schools that received threats. Listen here.


RAMON CORTINES, SUPERINTENDENT, LOS ANGELES SCHOOL DISTRICT: Some of the details talked about backpacks, talked about other packages, and after talking with him, also with the board president, I made a decision to close all of the schools.


BOLDUAN: Joining us now for more on this as we continue to wait and get more developments and details in on the situation, CNN national security analyst, Juliette, also a former top-ranking official at Department of Homeland Security.

Juliette, you hear from the superintendent, he said it was not one, it was not two, it was three schools -- not three schools, but many schools that received threats, an electronic threat. What do you make of this?

Do we have Juliette?


BOLDUAN: We're having a hard time making -- go ahead, Juliette.

KAYYEM: John, sorry about this.

Listen, this is unprecedented. In my history in Homeland Security, I have never heard anything like this, the magnitude of the closure. People who don't know the L.A. school system, it's hundreds of schools across miles and miles. This is incredibly disruptive to the school system and, obviously, the trickle-down effect. As anyone who has kids knows, if your kids are home, then you are home. My guess is, and this is supposition based on my experience, but also what we've heard is the superintendent simply had no time to assess the veracity or validity of the threat at this stage, and made a judgment call that may have been too cautious, but nonetheless one he felt was necessary. And that is all we have to go on right now.

I have to say, I went through this with my school district last week. Cambridge Public School Systems decided not to close. Felts these call-ins will continue to happen in the threat environment we're in. Instead, notified parents and give us information about increased police presence. That's a sort of counter narrative to what L.A. just did.

BERMAN: Interesting, Juliette. You think it's a timing thing and not a severity thing. As you said, I can't remember a shutdown like this. You're talking about more than 600,000 students.

BOLDUAN: 900 schools.

BERMAN: What they say they to want do right now is search these schools with expert personnel. For what, unclear. The superintendent said some type of unspecified threat involving backpacks and other unspecified -- you would think, to make this kind of decision, they need some kind of information to indicate that they need to exercise this sudden caution.

KAYYEM: John, it's curious. The superintendent was talking about "I." "I made the decision, I made the decision." I think we will hear over time where the mayor's office was at this stage and also where the L.A. Police Department was. The school district has its own police department, own security apparatus, given its size and diversity and the urban nature of the school district. But based on solely specified schools across a school district that, as you said, includes almost 1,000 schools, I'm not seeing it yet. I'm not seeing what would have triggered this except the timing issue. That's my only explanation at this stage, that they wake up in the morning, they have no way to assess what the threats are and decide to be utterly cautious. You will remember when we were with the Boston Marathon, some universities closed, but that was during a hunt, right? That was during a specific terrorist incident. This is really unprecedented. And I think we have -- I think we will learn a lot in the next couple of hours.

[11:05:40] BOLDUAN: Absolutely. And the superintendent says he's going to be making another statement later in the day. They need to though. He says he wants every school checked and cleared before he makes the decision and the call to allow students back in.

Juliette, stick with us. Stand by for us.

Let's get over to Paul Vercammen. Paul is in Los Angeles, outside the school where that press conference was held just moments ago.

Paul, you heard it in the superintendent's voice. He was very serious and he understood the gravity of the decision he had to make.

PAUL VERCAMMEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He did. That was echoed by the Los Angeles Police Department. I talked with a spokesman there and they were saying they are on a level-one alert. They're not on a tactical alert yet but they want officers to be extremely visible today. The ripple effect in all of this, as we speak right now, 8:00, traditionally, a time schools start in L.A., so from what we understand, people are greeting students at the school right now. We talked about the buses, but many students walk to school and get there by other means. They were trying to lay out through a phone tree that went out early this morning that everybody should be aware, if they can, do not go to school today, trying to get that message to friends and other people in the district. You are right. There's a high level here. Again, the LAPD confirming that they're at a level-one right now and not on tactical alert. We'll have to wait and see what the next moves are.

I should also tell you that private schools are still in session, at least some that I talked to, as this -- you can imagine the tension and the heightened sense of tension throughout Los Angeles this morning. As it was said, this large school district, as you pointed out, 900 schools, 640,000 students, the second-largest in the country, the L.A. Unified School District shut down this morning amid this threat.

BERMAN: Paul, stand by.

The superintendent also said he made this decision in the wake of what happened in San Bernardino, which is very nearby Los Angeles, and also what's going on overseas. I'm sure he's talking about what's going on in Paris, and what's going around the United States and I imagine he's talking about shootings at schools like Oregon and the like.

I want to bring back Juliette Kayyem, Homeland Security expert.

Juliette, you mentioned that you wonder if this superintendent -- you expect he made the decision in conjunction with the mayor's office and local authorities. What about federal authorities? What about the investigations going on in nearby San Bernardino? What about the FBI? Do you imagine they were consulted before a decision of this scope, immense scope, 600,000 students, was made?

KAYYEM: One would hope so. There's a Joint Terrorism Task Force, very vibrant in Los Angeles. I actually grew up there and spent a lot of time there. On the joint terrorism task force will be federal officials as well as local officials representing the school district. What I am wondering, when I keep talking about timing is what time did the threats come in and what were they able to pull together in terms of coordination and cooperation. The Department of Homeland Security would never advise a school system, based on at least what the superintendent is saying, to close down the entire school system. This is clearly coming from local officials.

I just to want make one thing clear. As a parent and a mother, I know people are very worried. There's a large -- you know, there's a lot going on and there's a big threat environment, but in the absence of that threat environment, we would not close down an entire school system like this based on a few phone calls. We have to remember that, because, you know, this threat environment could last for some time. I think we have to recognize some of it is background noise. Secondly, as a counterterrorism official, we know none of the scary things that happened recently were called in before. There are people that do hoaxes that feed off fear. I suspect that's what's happening here.

BOLDUAN: So unsettling for everyone watching, second-largest school district in the country shut down, 900 schools.

Juliette, thank you so much.

Paul Vercammen, thank you so much.

We'll get back to you.

Joining us right now, I want to bring in Kenneth Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services. He's a school safety expert.

Kenneth, are you with us? Are you with us?


[11:10:06] BOLDUAN: Good morning to you. Thanks so much for jumping on the phone.

You were involved in the school system in Cleveland, as I was reading, and you -- what do you make of the fact that this school system is shut down. What does that say to you?

TRUMP: Well, we actually did a study of more than 800 violent school threats as part of our consulting with schools across the nation. Having been in the field for more than 30 years, it's quite concerning when you see the scope and magnitude of this. Juliette brought up a number of important points. In our study of more than 800 violent threats, we found out 37 percent of those were sent electronically. Many times, the impact to social media phenomenon known as SWATing, making calls to schools for massive police response, is another phenomenon we're dealing with. Out of that study, more than 30 percent shut down of the schools had evacuated, 10 percent shutdown, and many of those unnecessarily. What we're preaching today Kate, we're trying to get schools to focus on not reacting and then assessing, but to assess and then react.

What you may have in the L.A. case, though, is a scenario where the superintendent and their law enforcement authorities did not have adequate time to assess and made this decision. There are some challenges that come with making a shutdown like this because you have to make sure this does not become a routine process, that you have a threat-assessment protocol in place, teams that are trained and you evaluate. Oftentimes, the best thing for children is to continue on under heightened security as these investigations go on. It's a challenging situation.

I suspect one of the possibilities, again, is they did not have adequate opportunity to do a thorough threat assessment. We would hope that once they do that they return to normalcy under heightened security, unless their threat assessment shows there's a clear and imminent threat.

The situation in San Bernardino may bring proximity to it because of the location, because it's caught some of our attention in the school security field about the shooter having a public employment role where he had access to schools, inspecting cafeteria and also, according to news reports, had photographs of the exterior of at least one other high school on his phone, raises concerns. This is something we've talked about. I testified to Congress and the House Homeland Security Committee in 2007. It's a challenge. You want to keep some perspective and context. I'm a parent as well. We don't want people across the nation fearful. It's a tough balance.

BOLDUAN: That's absolutely right, Kenneth. It's a very tough balance. A very difficult situation. We still don't have all the details up. You raised a lot of important questions that need to be answered as we continue to follow this breaking news.

Kenneth Trump, thanks so much for calling in.

BERMAN: Obviously, the back drop of this stunning decision to close the Los Angeles school district comes when there are these national security concerns. That will be the theme of the debate here tonight in Las Vegas at the Venetian Theater.

Candidates have begun to arrive. We have one candidate next to us. We'll discuss this new threat with him in just a moment.

BOLDUAN: Also ahead for us, in moments, President Obama will be welcoming two dozen new U.S. citizens, including a refugee from Iraq. Will the president take a shot, and that opportunity to take a shot at Donald Trump and other Republicans who now want to ban refugees from the United States?

This is CNN's special coverage, live from Las Vegas. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [11:17:07] BERMAN: We have breaking news out of Los Angeles. The entire Los Angeles school district, the Unified School District has been shut down over what authorities are calling a credible threat. Officials say they received not just one, but many threats against schools involving backpacks and packages at campuses. The Los Angeles school district is the second-largest school system in the country, more than half a million students, 600,000-plus students, 900 schools. The superintendent is planning to issue a statement a short time from now on the status of the searches. They're going through the schools right now.

BOLDUAN: All of this happening across the back drop of tonight, the CNN debate. The focus, national security. This really underscoring the importance of this conversation and to hear from the candidates themselves right now.

We have one of those candidates with us, Rick Santorum.

Senator, thank you for being here.

You were sitting here with us as we learned more about this breaking news. This underscores the importance of this conversation tonight, your focus.

RICK SANTORUM, (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It is. This is an obvious concern. Our prayers go to the people of Los Angeles that nothing horrible is going to happen there, but the reality is that these terrorist threats are the new normal. And we have -- we're going to see it prosper as long as we don't attack the heart of the problem. That's ISIS, the radical Islam State, as well as others who seek to do harm to the West and are motivating people in a different way than we've seen before. The idea of planned attacks on iconic sites we saw from al Qaeda, that's not ISIS. ISIS is trying to encourage people in San Bernardino or in any other small or medium- sized town or any town in America to act, to just -- to go out and to plan and to do their own thing. It's not a lone wolf. A lone wolf says they do it on their own. They're not. They're being encouraged, given training online, theology online to go out and attack this country. That's going to be the new normal. And you'll have some, as you heard, who are going to copycat that, who are going to hoax on that. All of this gets rolling and it makes you have to take the original threat seriously, which is the ISIS threat, but also prepare ourselves and people here to steel ourselves that this is something we have to do on a daily basis and we can't just react by canceling, because they win. We have to have a better system of analyzing quickly and moving forward not to overreact in these situations.

BERMAN: Do you think it was a bad decision?

[11:49:52] SANTORUM: I don't know if it's a bad decision. All I'm saying, and I think you heard this, we have to be able to assess and understand the nature of these threats and where they come from. A lot of it's just going to be experience. I think we've had some experience on this. Maybe it's just more experience so we don't make decisions rashly.

BERMAN: We don't know. We don't know the nature of these threats.


BERMAN: We don't know if it has any connection to international terrorism, the terror concerns we have seen, or if it's just --


SANTORUM: You have to say -- it has to be a connection only because these international threats, if it's a punk calling in a threat, he wouldn't call in a threat unless --


BERMAN: The connection is -- the concern is it's heightened because of what we've seen. We're coming into this national security debate, and one of these ideas that's been kicked around for a week by Donald Trump, who is the front-runner, to ban Muslims from coming into the United States. There's a lot of talk, is that a good idea? Is it an extreme idea? There's a poll from ABC News that shows 60 percent of Republican primary voters think it's a good idea. A new poll out minutes ago from Monmouth that says the number is lower among Republicans.


SANTORUM: I think people -- I know Republicans are sick and tired of the political correctness that we can't talk about this. You can't say the word Muslim. You can't talk about the ideology that's behind all of this. If you do, you're defending someone or you might spur attacks. There are more attacks on Jews in America than Muslims in America. But no one is out there talking about, what are we going to do. Because we have a president who have been very anti-Israel. Is he starting attacks on Jews by being that way? No Republican --


BERMAN: You're not suggesting --


SANTORUM: I'm not suggesting it, but no one would suggest -- I wouldn't suggest it. If you talk about a threat of people -- not all Muslims are jihadists, clearly, but all jihadists are Muslims. The idea we can't talk about that is frustrating to Republicans, frustrating to Americans, not just Republicans. Trump has hit on that. I don't agree with the solution but I agree we need to talk about it.

BOLDUAN: But part of it is -- it's the nuance. It's not just that people are opposed to talking.


SANTORUM: Look at the questions they ask people coming into this country. Are you a terrorist? Are you going to fund terrorism? They don't talk about their ideology. They don't talk about their theology. They don't even look at social media to determine whether they're cavorting with other type of radicals --


BOLDUAN: The national security --


SANTORUM: This is a blindness. There's a deliberate blindness to try to divert attention away from the heart of the problem, which you have a radical form of Islam that is poisoning this -- the well, and attacking this country, and we better start talking about it in frank terms who they are and what we have to do --


BOLDUAN: Let's talk about in frank terms. I've seen, in your past statements, you've said it's not a policy you support. It's not workable. Are you saying now that it could be workable?

SANTORUM: No. Look, the policies I put forward is that there are countries in the world where ISIS is present, other radical Islamic groups are present, where the government is, in a sense, nonfunctioning, like Libya and other places like that, and we should not be taking anybody from those countries, period. We should not be taking any Muslims from those countries. Christians is a different story. I'm not worried about jihadist Christians. I am worried if you can't do sufficient background checks in these countries, and you can't. You bring one national security expert out here that tells you, you can do a sufficient background check of someone coming from Libya, someone coming from Yemen, from Iraq or Syria. You can't. As a result of that, we should not be bringing --


BOLDUAN: Wait. Does that feed into what you were just saying, you can't just carte blanche shut down a school system because the terrorists win, but a lot of folks say that policy is feeding into what ISIS wants. They want to say this is a religious war. They meant to say this is an end-of-days scenario war they are fighting against all of us. Are you -- is that feeding into --


SANTORUM: That's what they are doing. It's not what they're saying. That's what they're doing. The reality is that's who ISIS is. And we're being dishonest with the American public if we don't tell the American public, here's ISIS, here's what they believe in, here's what they want to accomplish. They're in a holy war against us and here's why they're in a holy war against us.


SANTORUM: That's not feeding into ISIS. That's just explaining to the American public the truth of their motivations. BERMAN: What about how to battle terrorism in the United States. One

of your competitors, Ted Cruz, led the fight on the Senate floor to limit the NSA's domestic surveillance. What do you make of that?

SANTORUM: I disagree with Ted and Rand, both of them on this subject matter. I think we need to be looking at more enhanced ways we can use technology to be able to determine -- you look at someone who -- I think there was a report out that one of the terrorist incidents, since back in 2013, you know, there was a communication with someone from Yemen and a terrorist group. If we had had the ability to look at more phone records, we might have been able --


BOLDUAN: You're talking about San Bernardino?

SANTORUM: No, no. This was back in -- this is another --


BOLDUAN: OK, a different --


BOLDUAN: No, no. Sorry.

SANTORUM: I'm forgetting what it is. But there was a report that said if we had better access to more phone records, we might be able to find these out. There are algorithms now available, technology available that doesn't take human eyes to look at names. And you're looking at algorithms that go across vast amounts of data, find phone calls that are made that can tie other people together. That's important in a world where technology is being used to recruit and communicate ideology.

[11:25:10] BERMAN: Senator Rick Santorum, we thank you for being here.

SANTORUM: Thank you.

BERMAN: You come from stout stock. You'd be out here in a tank top.

SANTORUM: I'm from Western Pennsylvania.

BERMAN: We have thick coats on.

BOLDUAN: If you know Rick Santorum, you know he likes, in a playful way, to talk trash and he was doing that.

BERMAN: Mocking our coats.


Senator, thank you so much.

BOLDUAN: Thanks, Senator. SANTORUM: My pleasure.

BERMAN: The head of the Republican National Committee says he does not support the ban on Muslims proposed by Donald Trump. That new poll we talked about says 60 percent of Republican primary voters do. A senior RNC official will join us live.

BOLDUAN: Also this. We'll talk much more on our breaking news. The nation's second-largest school district shut down over a credible threat to the schools. The FBI is now involved. We're going to get the very latest from Los Angeles.

We'll be right back with our special coverage.


[11:30:11] BOLDUAN: We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world.