Wednesday, March 14 was the day designated for high school students across the country to walk out of class, in honor of the young lives taken in Parkland, Fla., one month ago.
Here in Kingston, the school administration decided that instead of a walkout, there would be an event that would “empower the student body, but also keep them as safe as possible,” in the words of Kirk Reinhart, the principal.
“I am proud to say that we have worked with students to reach a compromise and create a collaborative and respectful event,” what in a letter to parents he called a “peaceful, organized and effective demonstration.”
That event? Students could walk out of their classrooms and stand in the corridors.
I arrived at Kingston High School at about 9:30 a.m., and encountered a perimeter set up about 75 feet from the front stairs, staffed by a security official named Sean. He told me that press had been pre-cleared for the event, and that I could not enter the building without permission from what he called Crown Street — the district office. I was told to leave the campus or face arrest.
I called the school district and got John Verge, the deputy superintendent. I identified myself as a radio and print reporter, named some of the places I work, and he said he would call the school and authorize my entry.
The security perimeter was moved down to the street. I told a guard standing at the entrance that I had been granted permission to attend the “protest” by the deputy superintendent, as instructed. Eventually, word came around on his walkie-talkie that I was authorized, and he allowed me in.
When I entered the building, I was stopped by the assistant principal. I told him that per instructions of his security guy, I had called the district office and received permission to be in the building.
“I don’t have anything to prove you were cleared by the [deputy] superintendent.” I told him about my call with Mr. Verge a few minutes earlier, and how the guard had let me in when he confirmed that.
“Why are you doing this?” he asked, as if my purpose was to annoy him. I reminded him of the obvious, which is that I was a reporter covering a protest.
He told me to leave the campus, since I didn’t have permission to be there. I went back to my car. Sean, the security official, came and found me as I was driving out. It had all been a mistake, and I was now allowed to come into the building.
“My bad, my bad,” he said.
I went back in, and was allowed to walk past the assistant principal and various cops standing around, and joined some students who were holding a kind of silent vigil in the corridor.
The names of dead students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were being solemnly read off by someone on the school’s PA system.
After about three minutes, another school official came and found me, and said to come with her. She was clearly upset. She, too, claimed I did not have permission to be in the building.
“I got permission 20 minutes ago.”
“For an event of this nature, you cannot ask 20 minutes in advance.”
“What kind of event? It’s a bunch of kids standing around in the corridor.”
If the concern was weapons, that’s interesting — nobody checked my bag or coat, wanded me or patted me down. In the front lobby, the assistant principal was pleading with me to leave the building. I must have had the vibe that I was willing to get arrested for the story, which would have created a big hassle for them, and been covered by all the newspapers. True enough, but I was not in the mood that day.
Welcome to the Free Speech Zone.
Eric F. Coppolino