Do investigative news reports that test school security cross the line?

Posted by on March 18, 2014

Investigative news reporters have been testing school security with hidden cameras since the attack at Columbine High School nearly 15 years ago. But now the reporters are the ones under scrutiny.

In a story yesterday entitled, “Undercover TV Reports on School Security Raise Ethical Questions,” the New York Times took an in-depth look at whether reporters breaching school security by walking around with hidden cameras while unstopped by school staff are performing a public service or presenting a safety threat.

School security news investigations can and do backfire

One such news investigation in St. Louis recently backfired on the reporter after the school went into lockdown when the reporter checked into the office, but then took off into the school building and disappeared.

These stories infuriate school administrators who are embarrassed when their schools are caught red-handed on video with glaring gaps in the most basic form of school security: Access control and staff who greet and challenge strangers. Educators quickly call “foul” and increasingly have made their schools the victim instead of the villain in these types of stories.

In the St. Louis story, the news station ended up apologizing to the school district. And school officials ended up testifying in support of a proposed new state law that would slap criminal consequences on those who unnecessarily trigger a school lockdown.

Hidden camera investigation stories capture glaring security gaps

Reporters, though, point out that everything tends to look great and work perfectly when people know they are coming with the lights and cameras on. They argue that the hidden camera stories capture reality that their regular-sized cameras would never record because school officials would see them coming before they hit the schoolhouse doorway.

As a career school security professional, I understand the concerns of school administrators who do not want an episode like the one in St. Louis to unfold in one of their schools and frighten students, staff, and the community. Following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in December of 2012, educators have been walking on eggshells.

But having worked as a freelance investigative producer and consultant for a local television news station, I also see the news value in such stories. The bottom line is that when reporters with hidden cameras can walk through unlocked school doors and past school employees who fail to greet and/or challenge them, there is a legitimate safety issue — and in turn, a legitimate news story.

Killing the messenger who points out glaring gaps in school security may make a good counter-strategy to help educators manage the school-community politics and public relations damage control. But no matter how educators try to spin it, the camera doesn’t lie. If someone can walk through unlocked doors and past adult school employees without being stopped, there is a problem with school security — period.

Are there better school security news investigations?

Reporters need to weigh the costs and benefits of doing such a story in their news market. If they choose to do this type of story, they need to have a plan of action to avoid creating panic. For example, we have seen reporters immediately notify the school district after the hidden camera walk-throughs were completed by reporters.

We have also seen educators react to such stories effectively without crying victim or trying to deny, deflect, and defend. An Indiana principal welcomed the reporter and photographer back into his high school after a student let the reporter in a locked door during a hidden camera investigation visit.  The principal highlighted the many positive security measures in place in his school and explained the challenges of running a large high school with a huge physical plant with many activities.

Perhaps there are also bigger school security investigations for reporters to pursue. We have seen some recent quality news investigations showing substantial delays by school officials in repairing and replacing faulty school security cameras. In past years, we have also seen excellent news stories investigating the underreporting of crimes occurring behind the schoolhouse doors.

Good behavior, well-communicated

In training school superintendents, principals, and their leadership teams, I tell them that the definition of good public relations is “good behavior, well-communicated.” If they do not have the “good behavior” in place, there is only so much that can be done on the communications end. So the best place to focus their efforts is on insuring “good behavior” in the first place.

In school safety, “good behavior” means following proven best practices. Reasonable physical security measures, staff and students who are trained to report strangers, and related strategies are good behaviors. If schools are performing with good behaviors, the communications piece will often be much easier to manage.

We also teach school leaders that if you mess up, own up and fix it up. Acknowledge the shortcomings fairly pointed out in news stories. Explain the challenges of maintaining school security and point out your positive efforts to do so.

Parents may get angry with reporters if enough dust is blown up by school officials about a news investigation. But many parents will focus more on the school security gaps.

Smart school leaders know that in today’s world of cell phone video, social media, and transparency, they can run but they can’t hide.  Doing the right things with school safety will make communicating about safety much easier.

Ken Trump

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2 thoughts on “Do investigative news reports that test school security cross the line?

  1. Chuck Hibbert says:

    If everyone does their job properly, then the story gets reported as a job well-done by the schools. It won’t get as much airtime as those who fail, but it will get aired. Schools who train to the basics you’ve outlined will be fine.

  2. The reaction of school executives, while understandable from the perspective of their own embarrassment, unfortunately shows that the will to get security done correctly is still weak in the political environment of some school districts. Good leaders would embrace what has happened and use it to further the cause rather than simply voice displeasure at those that pointed it out. I agree with Ken that Administrators must own up to mistakes or issues and fix them. It is the only way forward and they remain accountable. I also feel that news outlets are taking dangerous chances when they enter schools unannounced and start a shooter response or lockdown. The risk of injury to students instantly goes up as tensions increase and students/teachers go into lockdown or evacuation procedures, while the reporter(s) causing the alarm should expect that they may be treated as attackers at any point without recourse as people involved or responders do not know who they are or why they are causing the alarm.

    We still face a problem of getting school districts that are untouched by attacks to take these threats seriously enough to plug the gaps on their own without someone having to point it out. I also feel that untrained news entities should not be crossing the line with these probes. It should be local law enforcement with the support of the school district executive to minimize the risk of injury.

    I continue to be amazed by executives who do not fix equipment or procedural issues after an incident or audit. They must be making a conscious decision of budget priorities to risk being held accountable by their inaction if something were to occur after it was brought to their attention.

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