Trespassing at Schools Ignites Catfight

Here’s a sure bet — Jefferson County school authorities will not hesitate to prosecute the WHAS-TV employee charged with criminal trespassing on school grounds Oct. 4.

When a spate of school violence brought the issue into the forefront of national media, WHAS-TV got the idea to test the security at Atherton High School. It sent an employee on campus to see if he could get in. He knocked on a door, and a student opened it. Once inside, the story of what happened depends on who you believe. Ultimately, police were called, the employee was cited, and WHAS-TV played the event as a major news story.

WAVE-TV covered the story as well, taking the opportunity to criticize WHAS-TV in a lengthy story of its own.

But here’s the bottom line — is it the responsibility of the media to test the security of the schools? And if so, does that responsibility extend to other public institutions that are protected by security — should banks, hospitals, airports, public buildings — be subject to surprise illegal inspections by TV stations?

I think not. First, if entering a public school without good reason is considered criminal trespassing, and that’s a crime, then the station is exposing employees to undue risk. But the bigger issue is whether breaking the law for the sake of a news story is acceptable.

School officials don’t think so. Atherton principal John Hudson said the employee, 28-year-old Alexander Elder, lied about the reason for his visit. He told WAVE that WHAS was putting kids in danger and pulling staff away from regular duties, in addition to causing alarm among students and some parents.

WHAS-TV defended its action, claiming it does have responsibility for holding the school system’s security system accountable.  General manager Bob Klingle, according to WAVE, had an acrimonious visit with school superintendant Stephen Daeschner, a meeting Daeschner said he wouldn’t call “pleasant.”

WHAS-TV’s report on school safety, by reporter Mark Hebert, did a good job of communicating the safety policy of the school system. It could have been done just as effectively, however, without breaking the law.