Welcome to the Free Speech Zone


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, FL, 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,” which 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 am, 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.

By then, 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 to the building, and was now 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, with their arms linked.

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. Her name was Kate Heidecker, the school’s public relations specialist. 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.”

Apparently they wanted 100% control over their PR choreography. The editor of the Kingston Times said he had received an email at about 9 o’clock Monday morning — two days, not two weeks, earlier — inviting coverage from “some select media.”

Notably, if their concern was security, nobody patted me down, searched my bag, or wanded me. (The rumor going around was that they were afraid they would have a school shooting at a protest about school shootings — an entirely unfounded concern, based on there being no actual threat.)

Back in the front lobby, the assistant principal was now 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 hassle that lasted all week, plus the ongoing publicity about why they busted a reporter who had obtained authorization to be on campus, plus the trial. True enough, I’m willing to get arrested for the story, but I was not in the mood that day.

On the sidewalk outside the building, a student named Xavier had actually walked out of school. He said that the administration had recruited him as a student of color to have input on the in-school “protest,” since all the other organizers were, as he put it, “white girls.” But he was having no part of that.

Welcome to the Free Speech Zone.

Update: Thanks to Cindy Ragusa for tipping us off to this news article — 100 students walked out at 10 am. Well done, kids.

6 thoughts on “Welcome to the Free Speech Zone

  1. Glen Young

    What a great picture of the vulnerability of these students, it resonates with the video of the female student sitting on the floor during the shooting; helpless and powerless. As we now know, standing in our vulnerability of truth is real power for awakening and awareness. But the anger remains, here in RVA something like 113 school threats and 52 students arrested?.. Just yesterday, there was a bomb threat that was later deemed not credible, but the experience of being evacuated from the school is incredible. Anger clouds the mind, and when turned inward becomes an unconquerable enemy. Many choose to face this enemy alone, and as a result project it on to others. For example, take the President of the…..

  2. Amanda Painter

    The level of fear in our schools — both on the part of administrators and on the part of students — is staggering. I’m sure for administrators there was some legitimate fear of a shooting or “incident,” in addition to the fear of bad PR, and the fear of losing control over the students should they be “allowed” to protest fully. Not being student-age and not being in school in this era, I doubt I can truly comprehend what it feels like to carry that level of background terror and stress over potential violence in school.

    That said, I am glad that one Black student saw the bullshit level of what had been organized. Kudos to him for walking out on his own, and to the 100 or so students who did finally leave the building. Given the scale of walkouts in schools in other major cities, I suspect those kids might have felt a little cheated out of their volition and voice when they saw the news clips from elsewhere in the country later on.

    I wonder what made the Kingston admins so much more in need to exert control and protection compared to (apparently) many other school admins elsewhere?

  3. Geoff Marsh

    For me, the knowledge that defies rational explanation is that the Florida killer wanted to achieve fame as a school shooter. In which episode of America’s Got Talent would this performance be featured if the NRA were to be the program’s primary sponsor?

    What the NRA must be hoping is that revolutionary schoolkids will start targeting its members with shoot-outs at arms manufacturers’ AGMs. Then it will be necessary, nay essential, for all god-fearing members of the American public to carry arms at all times “for their own protection” and the second AMENdment.

    It’s not surprising that the response and reaction to calls for student action has varied across the country. It reminds me of the Civil Rights movement in the 60s – many felt able to fully respond with personal physical support, some donated their cash and skills, while others felt most comfortable making their support tangible through their personal commitment to the cause. Your politics is a direct result of your own self-interest.

    I can do nothing but congratulate and support those students who tested their courage against the life-threatening government of inaction to which they are subject in whatever way they found appropriate to their personal circumstances.

  4. Pisces Sun

    “Your politics is a direct result of your own self-interest,” well said Geoff. And thank you for your first hand report, Eric. I have a daughter who is a senior in a Fl school. She and her peers are grappling with the notion of not only school shootings but as she said, movie theatres, concert arenas and the like. She does not feel safe. We discussed how to be on guard as much as possible. It, unfortunately, brought me back to the time we lived in Northern VA during the time of the DC metro area sniper shootings (during the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and anthrax scares). My children’s schools were in lock-down for three weeks until the snipers were caught. During this time, every parent was on edge wherever they walked, or moved across public parking lots or in public buildings. A huge relief was upon us when the authorities captured the two snipers, one that was only 17 years old!
    Public Radio ran a feature last week of a Parkland family that lost a 17-year old daughter whose birthday was the following week after the shooting. She was set to graduate and embark upon a life journey of huge potential only to find herself pinned in a classroom where the shooter shattered the glass, stuck his AR rifle in and began shooting rounds. She was hit four times by bullets. The father said that people tell him that they can’t fathom what it must be like to be in his shoes, his response is that they must fathom it. They must picture what it is like to have a daughter riddled with bullets while sitting in her classroom on what would otherwise be an ordinary school day. He instructs us that we want to not go into the pain, the imagination of what it is like but we must visualize it so that we feel the pain, not for him but for our children.

  5. Lizzy

    “They must picture what it is like to have a daughter riddled with bullets while sitting in her classroom on what would otherwise be an ordinary school day. He instructs us that we want to not go into the pain, the imagination of what it is like but we must visualize it so that we feel the pain, not for him but for our children.” Yes. And so important to feel the pain (and fear) of the parents, too. Bless you, dear Pisces Sun. (((())))

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