COLUMBIA, S.C. — Some South Carolina school district officials have missed a major opportunity to teach “a real-life civics lesson” by banning reporters from covering students’ classroom walkouts to protest violence in schools, a press freedom attorney said Wednesday.
“I think that it’s a shame that the districts aren’t allowing coverage of it, because I think it’s an important message to society,” attorney Jay Bender told The Associated Press. “But you don’t’ get to be a school administrator unless you’re a total control freak.”
Bender spoke after thousands of students left classrooms across the state as part of the National School Walkout, planned in reaction to last month’s Florida high school shooting that killed 17 people. But in South Carolina’s largest school district, officials said they were discouraging students from participating and also told local media they wouldn’t be allowing reporters on campuses to view the events.
“These activities are voluntary,” Greenville County School District spokeswoman Beth Brotherton told The Greenville News , expressing concern that students hadn’t signed media releases and might be endangered by having their images shown publicly. “We don’t want the presence of media to provide public pressure or have students act out for the sake of the camera.”
In Charleston County, Post & Courier reporters also were barred from school grounds. Neither Brotherton nor Andy Pruitt, a spokesman for Charleston’s schools, immediately returned messages Wednesday from The Associated Press.
The efforts, Bender said, hampered not only reporters’ efforts at telling the story but also infringed on the same free-speech rights they claimed to uphold by allowing students to demonstrate.
“It’s just schools taking the easy way out,” Bender said. “They’re deciding that they’re going to let students have a voice on the issue but not do it in a way that maximizes the students’ voice.”
Anderson School District 5 took a different approach Wednesday, inviting media to cover events at campuses throughout its district. Spokesman Kyle Newton said he likes to maintain a close relationship with reporters and doesn’t view coverage of the walkout any differently.
“We have an open door policy with the media, because the media can help us get our story out,” Newton, who said officials have been preparing for the event for weeks, told AP. “It didn’t need to be discouraged. It just needed to be directed in an appropriate manner.”
Newton attended an event at Westside High School, where students peacefully assembled outside for several minutes before heading back into class.
“We were proud of how the students handled it,” Newton said, noting all the school’s students were born after the 1999 school shooting in Columbine, Colorado. “This is something that they’ve grown up in, and their safety is something they’re passionate about.”