An undercover television news story to test security in local schools triggered a lockdown Thursday at Kirkwood High, angering parents and raising questions about media ethics.
Students and teachers at the school were huddled in classrooms with the lights off for about 40 minutes Thursday afternoon after a man came into the school and asked to speak with security, then left.
The visit was one of five made by the television station to schools in the region aimed at exposing lapses in school security.
After hours of social media uproar, KSDK aired the news report at 10 p.m.
During the segment, the station showed how a staff member was unable to enter four schools unimpeded, but was able to walk right into Kirkwood High School, which had no buzzers at the door and whose entrance was not locked. The news report also questioned why the Kirkwood lockdown took place an hour after the reporter left the school building.
Even before the segment aired, KSDK used its 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. broadcasts to issue a statement standing by its reporting.
“This lockdown certainly was not the intent of our visit,” KSDK said in the statement, pointing out that the lockdown didn’t happen for an hour until after the reporter left. The station says the reporter “identified himself by name” to school officials. However, KSDK didn’t claim that he identified himself as a reporter.
“NewsChannel 5 will continue to be vigilant when it comes to the safety of our schools and your children within,” KSDK said.
Kirkwood School District spokeswoman Ginger Cayce said the incident highlighted problems in the district security Thursday. But she expressed frustration over the station’s handling of the situation.
“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. “We could have prevented the alarm to our parents, students and staff.”
The KSDK reporter initially gave his name and cellphone number and when the Kirkwood High secretary left to get the school resource officer, the man left the office, Cayce said. Administrators became alarmed when he asked the location of a restroom, left the office, but went a different direction.
When they called his cellphone, he did not answer, but his voicemail said he was a KSDK reporter. Cayce said she tried three times to confirm with the news station that the man was actually with KSDK with no success.
“I told them ‘I’m going to have to go into lockdown if you can’t confirm that this was a test,’” she said. “When we couldn’t confirm or deny it, we had no choice.”
In the hours after the incident, some parents said that while they did not like the disruption, they were more concerned about possible lapses in security.
But more often, parents and others derided the station’s tactics on social media and on news story comments. That was especially true of Kirkwood parents, who spent the lockdown in a panic.
Stacey Woodruff said she was in tears when she first heard about the lockdown, and spent the entire time communicating with her 14-year-old daughter, who was in a math class, on her cellphone. She said her teacher was keeping the students calm.
“She kept saying, ‘Mom, I’m OK,” Woodruff said. “When I found out it was KSDK, I was and still am livid.”
Among the Kirkwood students on lockdown was freshman Caroline Goff, 14.
“We got the announcement over the intercom … then the principal walked by and said, ‘You need to lock the door and turn off the lights.’”
The students were instructed to stand against the walls, out of the sight from anyone passing in the halls. Caroline said they stood and listened for close to an hour, worrying that sounds they were hearing outside — including what were apparently police on the roof — were the noises of a gunman.
“We would hear footsteps ... We were really scared, but we were all trying not to show it,” she said. “My teacher told our class that he would step in front of the person and let us all leave” if it came to that.
“We were scared that something was going to happen to us, like at Sandy Hook,” she said, referring to the 2012 school massacre in Connecticut.
Outside, Caroline’s father, Jeff Goff, was trying to figure out what was going on as police set up a perimeter. He said he noticed a media cameraman setting up outside the school immediately after the lockdown started, and wondered momentarily how the cameraman had managed to get there so quickly.
When rumors about KSDK’s role began circulating he called the station.
“I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me, do you know what you just put us through? There’s a guy [a police officer] with an automatic rifle standing in front of the school!’ ”
Officials at elementary schools in the Francis Howell and Parkway school districts reported similar visits from a KSDK reporter on Thursday.
At Bellerive Elementary, a man was buzzed into the office and asked to speak with the person in charge of security. But the man was evasive about his identity and why he was there, said Paul Tandy, spokesman for the Parkway School District. Security was alerted. Administrators later confirmed with KSDK that a station employee was at the school with a hidden camera.
When speaking over the intercom from outside the doors of a Francis Howell elementary school, the reporter said he wanted to set an appointment with the office about school security.
A secretary at Becky-David Elementary greeted him at the door and asked more questions, and she thought his responses were vague. He eventually identified himself as being with KSDK and left, district spokeswoman Jennifer Henry said. School officials notified administrators, who also called KSDK.
School shootings in recent years have prompted local and national debate about school security — and, in response, local and national media investigations of the issue, some of which have created controversy.
In 2006, The Poynter Institute, a respected national journalism foundation, tackled the issue of “Reporters Testing School Security.” Among the questions the piece suggests reporters should ask themselves before undertaking such an approach is, “How will the journalists’ intrusion affect the students? What kind of disruption could be caused, such as a lockdown?”
A related list of concerns includes the question: “Do we run the risk that our ‘reporting tactics’ will become the story rather than the public safety issue we are exploring?”
That has happened sporadically around the country in recent years.
In 2012, a Fargo, N.D., television reporter aired a story using a hidden camera to demonstrate that she could walk unimpeded through three local schools. After the story aired, school security was tightened — but the reporter also faced a police investigation for ignoring signs at the school warning all visitors that it was illegal to enter the school without checking at the school office.
Last year, two reporters for a high school newspaper in New York state did their own test of security at a neighboring school, walking through an unlocked door to demonstrate the lax security. They were ultimately apprehended by school security and taken to the principal, who, upon learning what they were doing, told them (according to one account) that they “would see the full extent of the security at the school” — and had them arrested for trespassing.
After the lockdown at Kirkwood High ended, Goff and his wife, Jenny Goff, “went and hugged” their daughter. “Life is precious these days,” Jeff Goff said.
“If someone else did this, they’d be arrested,” Goff said. “It’s just not smart, with all the things that have happened in our country.”
More education news by the numbers:
Valerie Schremp Hahn of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.