By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Channel 8 stung at Sunset
Channel 8 got stung during an undercover investigation at a Dallas high school last week--and the embarrassing result raises serious questions about the use of hidden cameras and undercover cameramen by the city's leading TV news station.
It all began last Monday morning, when security officers at Sunset High School in Oak Cliff noticed an unfamiliar face trying to bypass the metal detector near a back entrance. Concern about security at Dallas schools escalated earlier this month after an eighth-grader with a gun slipped past metal detectors at Florence Middle School.
At Sunset on Monday, according to principal Michael Stiles, security officers asked the unfamiliar white male where he was going; the visitor stuck out partly because the school is 93 percent minority. But after he told the guards he was going to see principal Stiles, they let him pass. On Tuesday morning, the visitor appeared again; as on the day before, he was carrying a green JanSport backpack. A dean spotted him loitering near the metal detector and three times asked him to move along. When he didn't, the dean questioned the visitor, who responded that he was there to see the school's assistant principal, "Mr. Rodriguez." The dean pointed him in the proper direction, then called Stiles.
The principal radioed security to apprehend the intruder. They did--"in one minute's time," Stiles told BeloWatch.
Two officers escorted the man into Stiles' office, where he refused to identify himself and changed his story, saying he was there to see the school counselor. After 10 minutes, the principal finally advised the visitor he would release him--but only after a search, since he had apparently bypassed the metal detectors.
Stiles said the man didn't explicitly voice consent, but silently unzipped his backpack, revealing a small camera with "WFAA TV" on it. Stiles says he thought the camera might be stolen. Then one of his security officers told him it was undercover equipment--and still rolling. Close inspection of the backpack would later reveal a hole cut in the "o" of the JanSport logo to allow surreptitious filming.
The visitor--Darrell Sparks, a 21-year-old part-time staffer with Channel 8, still refused to answer questions. Who was he? What was he doing in the school? Was he, in fact, with Channel 8? the principal asked.
"It's personal," Sparks responded.
The visitor gave Stiles a WFAA phone number, and the principal left a message seeking to confirm the identity of his unwanted guest. Though a Channel 8 attorney eventually phoned to say station officials would be on the way, Sparks still refused to say who he was.
By now, Stiles was angry. He had summoned an off-duty Dallas police officer who works at the school to his office. And he had conferred with DISD superintendent Chad Woolery, who "let me know I could do whatever I thought was legally necessary."
By then, Sparks had also surrendered the name and phone number of the woman who had driven him there: investigative reporter Valeri Williams, apparently circling the building in her car. Stiles reached her on a car phone. "I told her that I had her partner here in my office and that we had him and the camera equipment for Channel 8. Did she want to come in and pick him up?"
Williams was there in five minutes--demanding the release of the station's staffer and the return of its camera and videotape. But Stiles said he wasn't finished yet with Sparks--and that he was going to turn the confiscated equipment over to DISD security.
"She told me I couldn't keep that camera equipment," recalls Stiles. The reporter repeatedly pressed the issue. "My interview with you is over," he finally told Williams, before returning to his office and shutting the door.
At Stiles' request, the police officer placed Sparks under arrest and handcuffed him. The clandestine cameraman would later be issued a ticket for loitering, a class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500.
After another hour of fruitless interrogation, as the security officers prepared to release Sparks and take the camera downtown, he shouted to Williams, still waiting outside: "They're going to take the camera equipment!"
When the school officials opened the principal's door, according to Stiles, Williams stepped up and blocked the doorway.
"You're blocking my door. You need to please leave," the principal told the TV reporter. Williams refused to budge. Stiles asked again. Williams wouldn't go.
"Please escort her out of my office," the principal finally told a security officer. "I want her out of my building now."
The DISD officer, trailed by a Dallas police officer, then threw the reporter out of Sunset High School. "She was visibly angry," recalls Stiles. "She stopped walking at a certain point. They finally convinced her to go out the front door.
"She was in my building causing a disruption, and that's why I asked my security people and a police officer to escort her out."
"I thought her behavior was extremely inappropriate for a professional news person. I wouldn't go into Channel 8's offices and act like she acted."
Williams, Channel 8 general manager Cathy Creany, and news director John Miller all declined any comment on the matter, saying they can't discuss a story in progress. (The story is expected to air sometime this week.) Sparks could not be reached for comment.
DISD administrators and board members, clearly not eager to prolong a fight with Channel 8, also declined any public comment. They referred all questions to principal Stiles, who expressed his dismay at the entire episode. "We're a public institution," he told BeloWatch. "We deal with people on a very direct and ethical level. We expect them to handle themselves the same way.
Stiles questioned the purpose of such an undercover investigation--as well as its execution. "They were trying to report that security wasn't working at the school; that's just not the case." DISD has openly acknowledged that its metal detectors aren't foolproof, and serve as only part of the schools' security system. There was no need for an undercover investigation, says Stiles. "All they had to do was ask, and we would have let them in."
Sparks also shouldn't have lied, says Stiles--and should have identified himself after being caught. "He's representing Channel 8; he needs to know how to handle himself."
By the time a Channel 8 official and attorney had arrived at the school, Stiles had already released Sparks to rejoin Williams--and the equipment was at DISD's Ross Avenue headquarters. DISD officials later viewed the videotape before returning it and the camera to the station.
DISD sources tell BeloWatch it includes a recording of Williams and Sparks praying together in the car before he entered the high school, seeking divine aid for their mission.
The episode raises an assortment of ethical questions. Was the Sunset probe a fishing expedition? Is it appropriate for a journalist to lie? Why didn't Sparks come clean after his cover was blown?
These are all questions which the story that results will begin to answer. Officials at Channel 8 told BeloWatch they will address the others--after their piece is broadcast.