For years, print, broadcast and digital media reporters across the country have been testing school security by making unannounced visits to school buildings. Spurred by incidents like Columbine, Virginia Tech and Newtown, news organizations say their goal is to illustrate the question, "Could it happen here?" Some enter and exit buildings without speaking to anyone, to see how far they can go without being noticed. Others use hidden cameras to demonstrate the ease of moving around school facilities without supervision. Some check in at the school office. Others don't. Some get confronted and are told to check in or leave. Others aren't.
Usually, the result is a story in the newspaper or in a broadcast, showing what the reporter experienced and urging schools to review and monitor their access policies. Sometimes, the schools push back, such as in North Dakota, where authorities are considering criminal charges of trespassing against a television reporter. What rarely happens is what happened in St. Louis last week.
A reporter from KSDK-TV attempted to enter five area schools. He was confronted and turned away from four of them, but entered the fifth through an unlocked door. He went to the school office, gave his name and telephone number, asked to speak to a security officer and then left the building. Later, after being unable to reach the reporter by phone or confirm with the station that he had been there, the school initiated its lockdown procedure, keeping students and teachers in locked classrooms for about 40 minutes.
As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, parents were concerned about the possible lapse in security, but many were upset at the television station. School spokesperson Ginger Cayce told the newspaper the incident did highlight security problems, but she was frustrated by the station's approach. “We learned some things from this, but we are still dismayed that a call was not given after to let us know this was a test,” Cayce said.
By the end of the day, both the television station and the school district issued statements about the incident. The school criticized the station's tactics. The station said causing a lockdown was not the intention of its visit, but promised to continue to report on and test school security procedures.
UPDATE: The station has apologized, and the school's student newspaper offered this view of the incident.
What is the role of media in testing school security? Are reporters qualified to evaluate the effectiveness of security procedures? Should reporters simply report on lapses they learn about, or is it their role to conduct experiments themselves?
Back in 2006, the Poynter Institute's Al Tompkins posed several questions he thinks newsrooms should ask before trying to test school security. In his article, he pointed to earlier guidelines for "testing" stories developed by Poynter's Bob Steele. And following last week's incident in St. Louis, Poynter's media ethicist Kelly McBride called KSDK's approach "shallow and presumptuous," adding that the story was not "solutions-oriented journalism."
What do you think about KSDK's approach to telling this story? What about journalists testing school security in general? We're not just interested in hearing "yes" or "no," but the many shades of gray in this case. Did the school overreact? Should the station have come clean when called, perhaps preventing the lockdown? Did the incident prove that the school's procedures were ineffective or effective? Sound Off here in the comments, on Facebook or on Twitter.
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