God is their co-pilot
It is common for a journalist to wish a colleague heading off for a difficult interview "good luck."
It is less common to commence an investigative project with a request for divine aid.
But that, BeloWatch has learned, is precisely how undercover Channel 8 cameraman Darrell Sparks and investigative reporter Valeri Williams launched Sparks' ill-fated incognito foray into Sunset High School on February 6.
As BeloWatch reported last week, Sparks, a 21-year-old part-time WFAA staffer, was carrying the hidden camera (known around the station as "Sneakycam") in a backpack. He was heading into Sunset, a Dallas public high school located in Oak Cliff, to surreptitiously film security procedures there. DISD security had become a hot issue after a gun-bearing student had slipped past metal detectors at Florence Middle School and threatened classmates and teachers.
Although DISDschools are owned by the public, notes district spokesman Larry Ascough, "it's not open season" for anyone to wander the halls. State law requires school visitors to identify themselves and have legitimate business in a school. DISD policy, which is conspicuously posted, requires visitors to check in at the principal's office. Press types have no special exemption from this requirement.
As he prepared to venture into the Sunset building, Sparks was clearly nervous about what might happen--as it would turn out, with good reason.
Williams, sitting with Sparks in the car outside Sunset, sought to reassure him; her words were captured on the microphone of the hidden camera, which was already rolling.
"I'll be praying for you in the car," the reporter told Sparks. "Let me say a quick word of prayer for you."
And then she did: "Heavenly father, I, just lift Darrell up. And I say, please protect him, guide him, help us not to be in a tense situation. Give him relaxation, help him be calm, and I just ask for your protection on him."
Darrell piped in with his own plea. "Lord, I'm just really worried. I just hope this thing works well, and I just hope that...just give this situation to you and let you do what's right because I know that I can trust in you to guide me through this situation.
"In his name, amen."
God surely works in mysterious ways.
In the embarrassing episode that followed, the WFAA staffer got busted by the very security system he was there to scrutinize.
Sparks lied to Sunset staff about why he was in the school building, and refused, in more than two hours of questioning by the school principal and security officers, to identify himself or confirm his affiliation with WFAA--even after they had discovered his hidden camera, which bears the station's name.
Williams, summoned to the principal's office by cellular phone from a waiting car, was left cooling her heels outside a closed door after too-persistently demanding the release of her colleague and the station's equipment. She was later escorted out of the high school by a security officer and Dallas cop; the principal says he ordered security to give Williams the boot after she had blocked his office doorway and refused to move, in an attempt to keep school officials from taking the camera and videotape to DISD headquarters on Ross Avenue.
Sparks ended up briefly handcuffed, under arrest, and ticketed for loitering on school property, a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500.
The camera and videotape ended up downtown, where DISD officials reviewed the film and made a copy for themselves before releasing the property back to WFAA officials.
And Williams--at least in the opinion of DISD officials--ended up with an uncertain tale to tell.
WFAA staffers--including Sparks, Williams, and news director John Miller--declined comment to BeloWatch, saying they can't discuss a pending project. But Miller did say that the story definitely "has not been aborted" and will run "within the week." Asked whether the piece will explore what happened to Sparks and Williams at Sunset, Miller said it would. "We're going to tell the whole story," he told BeloWatch.
But DISD officials insist there's no story to tell--and are still fuming about the station's decision to go undercover at Sunset, as well as the behavior of the Channel 8 staffers.
Principal Michael Stiles says Williams on Tuesday, February 14, returned to Sunset with a TV monitor to show him segments of videotape Sparks had secretly filmed. "She came in and said, 'we have reviewed the tape again and we have what we think are some troubling concerns about what we've seen.' They wanted to review it with me and get my response."
Stiles says a brief segment of tape, filmed from a balcony, shows students passing through a school metal detector unchallenged while an intermittent beeping noise is audible--and that Williams clearly believed this was evidence of a wholesale breach in Sunset security.
In fact, says Stiles--who had already carefully reviewed DISD's own complete copy of what Sparks had filmed inside his school--the reporter was wrong. The beeping signal actually came from a separate metal-detecting hand-held wand that a coach was idly setting off by passing the wand over his own watch and belt buckle.
To prove that the sound wasn't coming from the metal detector, Stiles pointed out on the videotape that the security machine's green light never turned telltale red as the students passed through it--which would indicate it had detected metal. He then gave Williams a demonstration of the equipment.
"She was disbelieving at first," Stiles told BeloWatch. "They really thought what they saw was a problem.
"I convinced her that we were right, and they were wrong. She admitted to that. She said, 'it looks like you're right.'"
Williams raised other security issues with the principal. One was that Sparks, after setting off the metal detector on his first visit, was allowed to pass without having his backpack searched after telling security officers he was there to see the principal.
Stiles acknowledges that happened, but calls it a minor transgression. Stiles and other DISD officials readily acknowledge that after setting off a metal detector, students--and even some school visitors--are sometimes allowed to pass after emptying keys or other objects from their pockets without a thorough search or a second trip through the machine.
Says DISD school board president Sandy Kress: "They seem to think that because the [school security] officer allows youngsters to go through after they've beeped and after they've showed that the beep was probably caused by keys, they apparently think that's a horrible situation."
That position "is absolutely mind-boggling to me," says Kress. "If they want to make a story out of that, if they want to say we don't run these metal detectors like people at the airport do, they ought to go ahead and do that." Security officers "often decide to let kids move on through who they do not think to be suspicious or bringing a weapon into the school."
"I would hope no one would be surprised. If they were to send everyone back through, we would have long lines at these metal detectors. I don't think that's what we want to be doing with our schools."
Kress, who placed a phone call to A.H. Belo Corporation chief executive officer, Robert Decherd, to discuss the Channel 8 operation, questioned whether the station will report fairly about its own actions at Sunset. "I wonder whether the media generally has the courage or ethics to report the unethical behavior of their reporters or employees," he told BeloWatch.
Stiles said Williams told him the station is hiring a security consultant to review the videotape filmed at Sunset--and acknowledged that Sparks should have identified himself. "She gave the excuse that he is a young reporter and inexperienced," Stiles says. "In my view, if he's hired by the station, he's representing the station, and there is no excuse.
"When we're wrong in the schools, we don't make excuses. We admit our mistakes and try to do it better the next time."
But he insisted the episode--particularly his staff's detection of Darrell Sparks--is evidence that the school's security system generally works. "I'm wondering whether they're going to make an accurate reporting focusing on their mistakes--and the positive side that we exposed them."
"I want to see if they're indeed going to show the positive side that proves our security system works.
"If they do that, my faith in Channel 8 will be restored completely. That will show me it's completely honest broadcasting.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.