The School Board’s “Palace Guard” Says NO to “Royal” Access
HERNANDO – The relationship between Journalists and Public Information Officers (PIO’s) has always been circuitous, and is sometimes typified like a game Battleship®, where one opponent tries to guess where to place the next peg – or in our case – how to properly phrase the next question.
In a recent Media Access Study, 97% of reporters say they’ve had at to make multiple requests to PIO’s, to gain information or interviews, 78% say they’ve experienced roadblocks, in gathering information, and 78% say they’ve been prohibited from accessing government agency employees for interview, altogether.
On the flipside, in a study performed by the National Association of Government Communicators (NAGC), 50% of PIO’s who participated in the study say “Controlling media coverage of the agency is a very important part of protecting the agency’s reputation.” That same percentage “felt justified in refusing to allow reporters to conduct an interview if they felt it could compromise agency security or reveal damaging information.” And finally, about 65% of PIO’s felt they needed to sit in on interviews with their clients.
RNRF is no stranger to the difficulties of acquiring information, but we’ve built a pretty good rapport with the Sheriff’s Office, Brooksville Police Department, and other local government agencies; however, there is one agency that clearly has no desire to work amicably with the media, or at least not with RNRF.
RNRF viewers know that we are not shy in reporting the news, even when the reports are not “politically correct.” We don’t answer to major corporate sponsors who often orchestrate the whims of larger media’s reporting.
When it comes to reporting news on local schools, we strive to keep parents, students, and faculty informed on developing situations, especially those that involve violence. Sometimes this “fast reporting” infuriates school administrators, because they feel it “disrupts operations.” Parents and students say otherwise, and most feel that we provide a service to the community, by keeping them informed of potentially dangerous situations.
A perfect example occurred late last year, when we reported a possible “Credible Threat” at Weeki Wachee High School (Original Report). In that report, we stated “Parents say when the call the non-emergency line at the Sheriff’s Office they are told that a “credible threat…” Even though we never claimed that school officials made that statement directly to us – they were furious.
Then, PIO, Eric Williams, now Deputy Superintendent, responded to our request for additional information regarding the incident, by stating “Please call our PIO Karen Jordan at 352-797-7009, so that you can report more accurately than the story you published late last night. Our attorneys will be in touch with you about your report’s substantial inaccuracies and the subsequent material disruption to our schools in the coming days.” Of course, we were astonished at the unprofessional attitude displayed by Mr. Williams, but even more dumbfounded to find out that he was promoted to Deputy Superintendent – a new position created by the school district just for Mr. Williams.
After a recent rash of violent incidents inside schools and aboard buses, RNRF received dozens of complaints from parents and teachers, asking us to investigate the issues.
During a recent incident aboard a county school bus, several students were attacked by a child who allegedly suffers from several emotional and behavioral disorders. The student was removed from the school bus, but remained in a classroom with other vulnerable students. Another violent incident occurred recently at Chocachatti Elementary, supposedly involving the same student. When we asked the new HCSB’s Public Information Officer, Karen Jordan, for comment, she stated “Following an outburst at school this afternoon, the 5th grade student from Chocachatti has been disciplined in accordance with the district Student’s Code of Conduct.” We asked if she would confirm if it was the same student, but she replied, “Per Federal Law: The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99) is a Federal law that protects the privacy of student education records. The law applies to all schools that receive funds under an applicable program of the U.S. department of Education.” For the record, we never asked for the student’s name, we just asked if it was the same student.
Another frustrating melee occurred over the last few days, when we asked Jordan for information regarding the ½ Cent Sales Tax, Citizen Oversight Committee. The following is that email correspondence with Jordan…
Tom Lemons – Thank you. And the second part of the question was, who were chosen to be on the oversight committee and how were they chosen?
Karen Jordan – All of the citizens who applied to participate on the committee were accepted. There was no “picking.”
Tom Lemons – So, if they were accepted, how were they chosen? Did the district publically announce that applications were being accepted for the committee?
Karen Jordan – I see. Yes, the position was publicly advertised.
As you can see – Jordan still tiptoes around the questions and only provides partial answers.
Tom Lemons – Okay, we’re one step closer. Who made the final decision on the candidates? How many applied for the committee and if I were to request the names of those who applied, would that be public record?
We received no further correspondence regarding our questions; however, she did forward the list of people who sit on the Oversight Committee. We have begun the process of interviewing each member for a future article.
A few weeks ago, RNRF was asked to contact Dr. Romano’s assistant to schedule an interview, but when we called back to make that request, we were “headed off at the pass” by Karen Jordon. In an email reply to our request, Jordan said “As the Public Information Officer for Hernando County Schools, I act as the representative between the media and the school district. Unfortunately, a meeting with the superintendent is not possible at this time.” Several calls and another email request, regarding a meeting went unanswered, so, RNRF attended last night’s School Board Meeting, in an attempt to ask Jordan in person. As cordial as the conversation went, Jordan still made no promise to schedule a meeting with the Superintendent. In comparison, Sheriff Al Nienuis, and Chief George Turner, of their respective agencies, return calls and reply to emails, whenever information that can only be answered by them is required. We’ve also had no issue with contacting individual School Board Members for comment.
So as it stands, RNRF, as an agent of the community, has hit a brick wall with providing information to our viewers. The School Board’s “Palace Guard” has spoken and a chance to kiss the Monarch’s ring has been denied. The next “Here Ye Here Ye” will probably come in the form of a promotion request, as it did when they knocked down our doors to promote the ½ cent sales tax. And that is not to say that we didn’t support the tax – we never openly provided an opinion either way.
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