Archie Ingersoll, Published December 12 2013
Police investigate Valley News Live reporter for hidden-camera story inside area elementary schools
The story, meant to reveal holes in school security, has received scrutiny from police and school officials who say the reporter broke city and state laws by entering the schools without permission.
Moorhead and West Fargo police say they are investigating the matter. It is unclear whether the reporter will face charges.
Moorhead Lt. Tory Jacobson said that after seeing the TV station’s report, the city’s police officers, who know it’s illegal to simply walk into a school, felt they had an obligation to investigate the reporter’s actions.
“The concern we had was that they were specifically doing something that wasn’t lawful,” Jacobson said.
In West Fargo and Fargo, the schools that the reporter entered have clearly posted signs that direct visitors to the main office, officials said. A message left for Moorhead school officials on Thursday was not returned.
At the Fargo school, the sign reads, “Welcome to our school. During regularly scheduled classes, all visitors must register at the main office. Failure to do so is a Class B misdemeanor and a violation of Fargo municipal code 10-0320.”
On Wednesday, reporter Mellaney Moore went to schools in Fargo, West Fargo and Moorhead, and she captured blurry, bouncy footage of children in classrooms and hallways.
“Right away, I saw lines of students, and one can’t even imagine what could happen,” she said in her report, describing a visit to one school.
Ike Walker, the TV station’s news director, said the story grew out of a call from a concerned mother, who is also a faculty member in the Fargo School District. The woman had seen an investigative story on the “Today” show about school security and wanted the station to look into security at local schools, according to Moore’s report.
Despite the police investigations, Walker said his station stands by the story.
“We went inside three schools and walked around unabated. We walked in, and then we walked out,” he said. “At no time did anyone ever stop us to challenge why we were there, and that raises a pretty significant security question.”
Walker said his station was not aware of the laws that prohibit access to schools. In Fargo and West Fargo, city ordinances require visitors to register with the main office. In Moorhead, Minnesota law essentially demands the same of school visitors. In all three jurisdictions, the offense is a misdemeanor.
In a follow-up story that aired Thursday night, Valley News Live reported that Moore received a call from a Moorhead police official about her visit to the elementary school.
In West Fargo, Sgt. Gary Bommersbach confirmed that the Police Department’s investigators are looking into the case.
West Fargo Schools Superintendent David Flowers said he felt the TV station’s report was done in poor judgment and potentially had a negative effect on school safety.
“In the name of supposedly reporting a vulnerability, you’re also advertising it for those that may not have known,” he said.
Flowers said the newer schools in his district are designed so that visitors must enter though the main office. The district has an engineering study underway to create systems in older schools to improve security, he said.
Flowers also noted that Wednesday was not a normal day at the school the reporter visited because, at the time, it was hosting a music program for parents.
Fargo police Lt. Joel Vettel said his department has not received a complaint from the school district regarding the reporter’s visit to the Fargo school.
“Typically, in these circumstances, we would need a complainant to move forward with this sort of thing,” he said. “At this point, we have not moved forward with any sort of investigation.”
Fargo Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Schatz said the TV reporter’s disregard of the rules concerns him. But he said it’s unlikely his district will file a complaint, adding he’s not sure what purpose it would serve.
He said the TV station’s story has prompted district officials to discuss school safety.
“Obviously, we’re always concerned about security issues. We do a lot of things to try and make sure our schools are safe places for our kids,” Schatz said. “The situation (Wednesday), some of the systems broke down, and we’ve got to address that.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter
Archie Ingersoll at (701) 451-5734