Several years ago, a young man broke into the Kuna Middle School in the middle of the night and was caught by police hiding in a closet. As it turns out, this was not the first time this young man had broken into buildings. He had previously broken into the Kuna High School, at least one church and a couple of other schools, stealing cash and flat-screen televisions.
The day after the thief was caught in the middle school, the Kuna police chief held a press conference, and all the TV stations and newspapers were there covering it. I asked how the thief had broken into the school. The police chief, with cameras rolling, said that the middle school, being an older building, had a set of metal double doors with a metal divider bar between the two doors and that the thief was able to pry aside the metal bar and pop open the door.
Almost immediately, someone else from the Ada County Sheriff’s Office, who was standing off-camera, asked us in the media not to air that detail or put it in the paper.
I asked why not, and he said he didn’t want details like that to get out to other would-be thieves.
First of all, it’s clear that that kind of information was already out there (this young man clearly was already in possession of this information, so it can’t be that great of a secret), and second, don’t you think, I argued, that it would be a really good piece of information to put out there to other schools, such as Middleton or Nampa or Meridian, so that they might mitigate the threat at their own schools if they have similar doors?
As another aside to this story, at the time that this young man had broken into the Kuna High School and made off with cash from the football game as well as a couple of flat-screen TVs, school district officials responded to my question about a burglary alarm by telling me that the alarm was not turned on that night.
Come to find out much later, the whole truth was that the alarm was not turned on that night because it had never been working. The alarm had never been operational since the day the district had installed it. But in an effort to keep details quiet, the school district misled me on a key issue that cost taxpayers thousands of dollars.
I understand law enforcement, school officials, and even some members of the public wanting to keep certain things quiet, particularly when it comes to minors. But there are some things that should just be in the public sphere. I understand that these folks believe they’re just trying to do what’s right, but I don’t think they always consider that we in the media are also doing what we think is right. Is it better to keep secret how someone broke into the middle school in an effort to prevent copy-cats, or is it better for society to broadcast that information in an attempt to prevent another similar break-in? Is it better to keep quiet the fact that a burglary alarm was not working in order to prevent someone from getting in trouble or is it better to disclose that information so that the problem gets fixed and prevents someone from stealing thousands of dollars from your high school?
Is it better to keep secret the details of some sort of planned or perceived threat against schoolchildren in an effort to protect someone, or is it better to make known how or what someone was planning to do so that future attempts might be thwarted?
Yes, I tend to trust our institutions, our law enforcement, our school officials. I trust that they want to do the right thing. But I don’t always agree with the conclusion that they’ve reached in how best to do it.