Thousands of students across South Carolina walked out of their schools and classrooms at 10 a.m. Wednesday in a demonstration against gun violence, but their school leaders often set the terms of the protests and barred media from campus during the walkouts.
Protests were planned nationwide on the one-month anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., with students planning to stay outside for 17 minutes — one minute for each victim who died that day.
The Charleston County School District banned all news media from school property at Burke High, Academic Magnet High, School of the Arts and North Charleston High during the walkout. When The Post and Courier submitted a request to visit the schools Tuesday morning, the district's communications department said it could not say when it would give an answer.
"The team that developed the plans for the event decided to have closed campuses for the event so that we could ensure that students could participate without concerns for safety," district spokeswoman Erica Taylor said Wednesday afternoon.
"Each school worked with student leadership to develop a plan for activities of remembrance based on the interest of their student body," she added. "The names of the schools participating were not released to ensure that students could exercise their voice without interruption or distraction, as well as to keep the participating students as safe as possible."
Schools were provided sample scripts for parent call outs and letters to give parents, if the school participated, she said.
Charleston County School Board Chair Kate Darby said the district's decision was based on safety concerns, and journalists were given the same instructions as they would get if covering a school lockdown.
"These kids are trying to support 17 children who were killed, and we are trying to do it in the safest way we possibly could," Darby said. "I think parents would understand that’s what we were trying to do."
Some students who participated in the protest disagreed.
"It was an easy way for the administration to appear to give us a voice while simultaneously silencing us," said Caelan Bailey, a sophomore at Academic Magnet High.
Three police officers blocked The Post and Courier from entering the shared Charleston County School of the Arts and Academic Magnet High School campus, where students were scheduled to hold a peaceful demonstration at the flagpole in front of their buildings.
At North Charleston High, dozens of students gathered in the bus loop behind the school. A reporter from The Post and Courier attempted to interview students willing to talk to the press from the other side of a chain-link fence separating the bus loop from the railroad track, but school staffers steered the students away.
At James Island Charter High, a Charleston County public school that is governed by its own independent charter board, Principal Tim Thorn said last month that he thought it was "fabulous" that students were "finally taking a stand and taking this seriously."
On the day before the protest, the school announced that students would only be allowed to walk out into the senior courtyard, an interior courtyard that is invisible from outside the school. On the day of the protest, Thorn told news media in the school lobby to leave the property.
"I don't care about people seeing it. They have the right to protest, and we're supporting that, and they can go out and do that. It isn't our job to oblige and make the kids accessible to possible shooters or something. I mean, we have cops here and a large group of people coming together and being exposed," Thorn said. "This could be a reason for somebody to be motivated to do something harmful to kids. This is a safe setting, and we're going to make sure it's safe."
Across the state, other public schools set strict guidelines for students and often barred news media from campus. Two of the largest high schools, Wando High and Fort Dorchester High in Charleston County, only allowed students to walk out into the hallways.
The largest school district in the state, Greenville County Schools, announced this week that it would ban the press from all campuses during the walkout and provide its own video footage of the event. The Greenville News and other Upstate media outlets protested the decision and declined to use provided videos.
At James F. Byrnes High in Spartanburg County School District 5, press were banned from the school grounds during the walkout, according to the Herald-Journal. A student with a megaphone told reporter Zach Fox that they were risking in-school suspension if they left the property.
At Greenwood High, the Index-Journal reported that students walked out into an enclosed area near the cafeteria entrance and journalists were not allowed on the property.
Horry County Schools prohibited a walkout by students and staff, citing safety concerns, but district spokeswoman Lisa Bourcier said alternative events to recognize the tragedy in Parkland would be offered at all its middle and high schools.
Any students who did walk out on Wednesday "may face disciplinary consequences for leaving the school without permission," according to a statement from Horry County Schools. Bourcier said Wednesday morning that she had not heard of any large-scale attempts to walk out of school buildings.
The Berkeley County School District similarly warned that students would face punishment if they were late to class for walking out. According to district policy, officials said, the district "cannot promote any political protest or do any such act that transforms our schools into arenas for political activity."
Instead, students at Berkeley County middle and high schools were permitted to observe a "170 second moment of silence" at 10 a.m. to honor the victims of the Parkland shooting.
"This day is like any other day," said Brian Troutman, a district spokesman. "Students will not be punished for walking out, but, for example, if a student is late to class, there will be a tardy."
In one rare exception, Westside High in Anderson School District 5 allowed reporters to interview students.
Susan Dunn, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, said schools should not threaten students with unusually harsh punishments because that hampers their First Amendment rights.
"Unless that’s a standard policy, it doesn't make sense," she said. "If the point of it is to prevent this from happening because they don't want the protest, then that’s an attempt to silence the voice of those students who have every right to be heard."
Chloe Johnson contributed to this report.