Naked City

KXAN gets tricky with AISD

Austin Independent School District Police Chief Pat Fuller was looking a little squinty on Monday afternoon. "I was at a meeting, eating fajitas, and I got some jalapeño juice on my fingers. Next thing I know, I'm all puffed up," Fuller said, blinking his pink and watery left eye.

This was unfortunate, because the fajita incident came just moments before an on-camera interview with KXAN-TV reporter Julie Shields. Shields had braved the wilds of AISD and Round Rock ISD schools to conduct a daring investigation into school security. In the KXAN universe, that means carrying a hidden camera into schools, ignoring visitor sign-in procedures, and seeing how long it takes to get noticed – in one case, nearly 11 minutes.

KXAN is not the only news outlet to use this definition of investigative reporting. The May 9 issue of IdeasAdvantage, a newsletter of story ideas for TV news producers, describes a Portland station doing the same thing two weeks back. However, other people might have a different definition – as Fuller mic'ed up, Shields said KXAN had been fielding calls from concerned parents, who caught wind of the stunt when AISD sent out a memo warning principals of the station's intent, and asking them to make sure everyone on campus was aware of AISD's visitor sign-in policy. "This thing spread like an urban legend," Shields said.

Intruders do occasionally target schools – a man recently exposed himself to a student and her mother in a Lake Travis elementary, for example. School safety, however, is a complicated issue that makes total lockdown an unpalatable option. For all of KXAN's concerns about the 98 registered sex offenders in the same zip code as Allison Elementary, AISD students are much more likely to be harmed by other students – through fights, bullying, or more serious violence – than by outside intruders. Word on the educational policy street is that if schools are to address this student-on-student violence, they must do a better job of building open, trusting relationships between students and adults. That's something a prisonlike atmosphere doesn't exactly encourage. Instituting security check-ins at every door would also serve as a barrier to the kind of community involvement AISD so desperately wants.

"We're out there all the time trying to encourage parents to come to their children's schools," Fuller said. "If we ran the schools with the level of security they're expecting in this story, you'd have an environment that wouldn't be very inviting."

Nevertheless, Fuller said that AISD is constantly reviewing that balance between order and openness. For example, $19 million in bond money will go toward new cameras, card-access systems, and other security hardware. Still, he said, with 11,000 school employees and 500 to 600 substitute teachers in the schools every day, the sight of an unfamiliar face in the halls will probably not always draw the attention it should. While KXAN's Shields said that one of her investigators "clearly didn't belong in a school" (indicating her bald, bespectacled cameraman) Fuller said that substitute teachers – or visiting parents – can look like anything or anyone.

"The reality is, so do sex offenders," said Shields.

"The reality is, he didn't come close to any children," Fuller shot back. If the investigators had actually tried to approach a child, warning bells would definitely have gone off, he said. When it was suggested (by your humble narrator) that perhaps a more accurate test of AISD's ability to protect students from school intruders would be to attempt an abduction, Shields disagreed. "That would be incredibly sensational," she said.

Fuller also pointed out that good security policy would generally dictate barring those who had knowingly broken the rules from future access to schools.

Shields defended her technique: "The bottom line is, taxpayers want to know if their children are safe and secure, and the only way to do that …" "And I'm telling you, they are," Fuller said.

At least, that is, safe from intruders with hidden cameras.

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mediaschool security, Pat Fuller, Austin ISD, AISD, KXAN, Julie Shields, school safety

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