Houston Independent School District leaders on Thursday disclosed additional details about an email sent to Superintendent Terry Grier and others threatening widespread violence at unnamed campuses, similar to messages sent earlier this week to Los Angeles and New York that were considered hoaxes.
The email was not sent from Houston and was “over the top” based on “type of weapons and explosives that were going to be used,” HISD Police Chief Robert Mock said.
The message, he said, was “very similar” to the one posted in California, and district officials are seeking FBI approval to release it.
At least one change had been made to an email earlier to another district, with “Allah” capitalized, Mock said.
The email was sent Wednesday night to about half a dozen HISD employees, including the generic email for the superintendent, Mock said. The message was forwarded to the police chief at 8:17 p.m., chief of staff Jason Spencer said, and officers began meeting while Grier called superintendents across the country.
HISD released the email Thursday afternoon:
Hello there. There is something you should know about, taking place
tomorrow of 12/17/15, Thursday.
My story starts here. I have been bullied every day here, in one of the
district high schools. Just because, I am ‘different’. I turned to
religion, to solve my problems, and found faith and comfort in Allah. He
has helped me through a lot. So now, I must help him. He has called upon
me and my fellow comrades to take action against you blasphemers and
non-believers. You have denied Allah for too long. My 46 Jihad
affiliates and I are going to unleash an massacre of epic proportion,
targeting every single school and student in the district. We have an
assorted collection of Kalashnikov rifles, MG240 Light machine guns, RPG
Launchers, .50 Cal Sniper rifles, hand grenades, and to top it off:
suicide vests. We have already planted napalm, propane, and pressure
cooker explosives in multiple schools. They are set to go off in places
that will cause maximum structural damage to each building: for maximum
casualty. First responders will be in for quite the surprise, as we have
highly trained sniper forces straight from Ar Raqqa. We will fight for
our cause tomorrow, and all students in every school in the entire
district will be slaughtered for their blasphemy and unbelief in the one
true God, Allah. You will no longer get away with your dishonesty to our
Allah has called upon us:
Quran (3:56) – “As to those who reject faith, I will punish them with
terrible agony in this world and in the Hereafter, nor will they have
anyone to help.”
You will no longer deny the wrath of Allah. He has sent us to serve his
My name is (name redacted). You may not know this name now,
but my name will be known to everyone. I will be known as the one man
who truly saved this earth. For Allah.
And if you think you will stop us, by canceling schools, or perhaps,
adding security, it will not help.
If school is canceled, then there will be bombings regardless of whether
students are there or not, and mass shootings will be taken to the
streets. If security is stepped up, for tomorrow’s fatwa, it will not
help. We will take out any police and other security by any means
necessary, even if we go down with them.
محمد رسول الله
The similarity of the email to the one sent to various districts was a major reason that HISD officials deemed it not credible and decided to keep schools open Thursday, Mock said, adding that he sent his own children.
“It’s not sophisticated. It’s an email,” Mock said. “Not to downplay it, a threat is a threat.”
HISD called in all of its police officers on overtime Thursday morning to patrol schools, and tapped several other agencies, including the Houston, Bellaire and West University police departments, according to district spokeswoman Holly Huffman.
The district maintenance staff also checked every school, Huffman said.
“Everything’s been normal this morning,” said Mock.
District officials told parents in an automated phone call around 10 p.m. Wednesday that they had received a threat that they did not deem the threat credible and that schools would be open Thursday. A call with updates went out around 11 a.m. Thursday.
“As a precautionary measure,” the original message said, “law enforcement officers are currently conducting random sweeps of school district buildings to ensure student safety.”
At the Arabic Immersion School in north Houston, a police car blocked one entrance, and an officer patrolled the sidewalk on the other side of the campus Thursday morning.
“There’s no concern,” said one man dropping off a student, declining to give his name.
Erika Carrillo said she received the warning message from HISD Wednesday night, but brought her 6-year-old son to school Thursday morning to maintain routine and not make the boy nervous.
“I don’t want to live scared. I need to live normally,” she said, as she walked her son into the magnet school.
At Pershing Middle School in southwest Houston, Antonio Toledo dropped off his daughter, saying he wasn’t worried about the threat because it had no specific details.
Sam Olivares, bringing her daughter to Pershing Middle School at 3838 Blue Bonnet, said she hadn’t heard about the threat. But even if she had known about it, her three children would still have come to school.
“I’m one of the ones who believe that it shouldn’t scare you away,” said Olivares, who has a daughter at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and a son at Bellaire High School. “To me, that’s their entire point — to get you to be afraid.”
Patricia Lopez, a fifth grade teacher at Mark Twain Elementary next door to Pershing, was in the process of taking one daughter to Lanier Middle School and another to Lamar High School.
“It’s disturbing because we can’t take any threat lightly,” Lopez said, noting that public attention to the issue makes children fearful, which saddens her as a parent and educator.
“The district’s responsibility is obviously the safety of the community, but the way social media exploits it makes it incredibly hard to keep things calm,” Lopez said. “I’m assuming that a lot of children won’t be going to school today.”
David Quan, walking his dog near Pershing, said his son would be in class at Lamar High School.
Although concerned about the threat, Quan said it wasn’t as disconcerting as a more specific one the high school received last year.
“We listened carefully to the information from HISD,” Quan said of the automated phone call Wednesday evening. “It sounds like such an unspecific threat, so similar to threats in other cities that also weren’t specific (and proved not to be legitimate).”
Alison, who declined to give her last name as she dropped off her son at Pershing, said such incidents put the school district in a bad situation.
“If they don’t do anything, they’re criticized, and if they announce it, they’re criticized,” Alison said. “It’s finals week. If the kids miss, their grades will be affected.”
Edgardo Hernandez, who has one son at Pershing, said he wasn’t afraid of the threat. “God is with us,” he said.
(Listen to HISD’s message below. The story continues after the audio file.)
The email was received by HISD at 8:17 p.m. Wednesday, according to chief of staff Jason Spencer.
District officials confirmed that Dallas ISD and Miami-Dade public schools received nearly identical messages to the one sent to HISD. And these emails, officials said, were very similar to those sent a day earlier to the larger Los Angeles and New York districts.
HISD leaders did not disclose specifics of the email, citing an ongoing law enforcement investigation.
“The safety of our students and staff has always been my No. 1 priority,” Superintendent Terry Grier said in a brief interview Wednesday night after consulting with police and deciding not to cancel school. “Even though the threats in L.A. and New York turned out to be hoaxes, we’ve taken it seriously.”
HISD is the nation’s seventh-largest school district, enrolling roughly 215,000 students in about 280 campuses.
Dallas Independent School District staff members said they received a similar threat about 8 p.m. Tuesday at Pinkston High School and Martinez Elementary School.
Officials said Dallas ISD have remained in contact with the Dallas Police Department as well as the Joint Terrorism Task Force since being made aware of the threat. A sweep of both Pinkston High School and Martinez Elementary was conducted. Bomb sniffing canines were brought to each campus.
At 2:20 a.m. Thursday, police found no credible threat and released the buildings back to the district. Our schools have been deemed safe and the district will be open for normal business today. Beefed up police presence is expected at district campuses.
The New York and Los Angeles school systems, which both received email threats Tuesday, took different approaches, with L.A. shutting down more than 900 schools and New York dismissing it as a hoax. Those messages, however, were distinct.
The email sent to school officials in New York said 139 attackers would launch an assault with guns and bombs and all would die in the name of Allah. The Los Angeles email, however, mentioned 33 attackers, according to U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman, a former chairman of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism.
While it’s unlikely that a few dozen people could plan a coordinated single-day assault on the nation’s second-largest district without drawing the attention of law enforcement, the idea that 139 people could do it in New York is downright “fanciful,” the California Democrat said.
“That is the biggest difference between these emails,” Sherman told the Associated Press.
“Thirty-three was not terribly credible, but 139 is outlandish.”
FBI officials in Houston said late Wednesday that they were unaware of any threats to HISD campuses. An FBI spokeswoman said she would check Thursday with the agency’s Joint Terrorism Task Force but had no further information.
The email threat came just two days before HISD will be closed for winter break.
“You have to think of absolutely every precaution with this type of event,” said Zeph Capo, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers union. “I understand HISD is doing that.”
“That whoever’s behind this would target schoolchildren is very upsetting,” Capo added.
“Teachers more and more each and every day are in the line of fire protecting kids, quite literally. It’s a new reality we’re waking up to in today’s day and age. It’s extremely unfortunate.”
Houston ISD school board president Rhonda Skillern-Jones said the district has received threats in the past but not identical to this one, which follows the terrorist-linked mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. She said the district will have increased security at schools Thursday and other law enforcement agencies were alerted.
“The FBI and our surrounding agencies are professionals at this,” Skillern-Jones said. “They are the best source of intelligence for these things. If they don’t believe it’s a credible threat, I don’t imagine we would cancel school.”
Chronicle reporters Mike Glenn and Emma Hinchliffe contributed to this report, which contains material from the Associated Press.