By Tim Whyte
It wasn’t quite a riot. It was more like a brawl. About 50 students were involved in the altercation on the campus of Hart High School. It drew a heavily armed response from the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station as media converged upon the school, and deputies worked to quell the disturbance.
It was over 13 years ago. May 2006.
Our newsroom had contacted the William S. Hart Union High School District, to let them know we were sending reporters and photographers. We were assured they would not be impeded in covering the story. That turned out not to be true.
Shortly after word got out about the pending disturbance, a Hart District official had gone on the local radio station and said no such fight was occurring. He was mistaken. Or something.
So I ventured over there, camera in hand. While the media — including our staff — were being held at bay near the locked front entrance, I parked at Newhall Park and walked onto campus through an open side gate. I grew up here, so I know my way around, even if I didn’t go to Hart.
I was carrying a camera and a radio scanner, and I walked right past a sheriff’s deputy who saw me and voiced no objection to my presence.
I found the remains of the disturbance at the campus quad, where the conflict had pretty much died down but deputies were still rounding up students who were involved while a sheriff’s helicopter circled.
I kept a respectable distance and started taking photos, with a long lens. The kids and deputies involved were oblivious to my presence.
But a few faculty members noticed, and told me to leave. I asserted my legal right to be there. That’s a legal right that, as far as I know, remains in place today: Under California law — Penal Code 627 and Evidence Code 1070 — accredited media have a statutory right to cover news on public school campuses, with one important caveat: They cannot cause a disruption to educational activities, or incite a situation — like that brawl — to escalate.
Bet you didn’t know that aspect of the law. And there’s a good chance you don’t like it, either. I fully understand why. But there are, under most circumstances, good reasons for it.
Truth, first and foremost.
On that May 2006 afternoon, I wasn’t inciting anything. I was taking pictures from such a distance that the participants in the disturbance — and the deputies rounding them up — didn’t even realize I was there.
When I refused to leave, one of the faculty members got aggressive. He first tried to block my camera, and then when I didn’t back down, he gave me a shove.
The objecting faculty members turned my presence into a disturbance, and called over a sheriff’s deputy who frankly had more important things to do than deal with me.
I tried to explain to him that I was acting within the law, but he would have none of it. Before I could even get my media law handbook out of my pocket, he said, “That’s it, you’re under arrest.”
Next thing I know, my camera was seized and I was parked on a curb, wearing handcuffs.
Word of my “arrest” worked its way up through the sheriff’s chain of command until it got to a lieutenant who basically said, “Are you guys crazy? Let him go.”
So they did.
I wrote a column about it the following weekend. Not bragging, but I won a journalism award for that column.
I’m not sure if I’d write it again today.
At least not in the same way.
I still believe media need to have the ability to cover news — including breaking news, depending on the circumstances — on public school campuses. But the conversation is so different now and the variables run a scary gamut.
Those students at Hart High in 2006 — yikes, many of them are parents now — were unarmed. It was a schoolyard brawl. A big one, yes. And it had racial undertones. But the only guns involved were the ones held by sheriff’s deputies.
It was important, then and now, for the local press to be able to tell the public what was really going on. In the 2006 instance, we were literally up against false information being put out by school district officials, intentionally or not. It was our job to be the community’s eyes and ears.
And for the past several weeks, we’ve tried to fill the same role in the wake of the Nov. 14 shooting at Saugus High School, my alma mater. It was an awful tragedy, yet I, like so many others have expressed, am extremely proud of the way our community has responded.
On the day of the Saugus shooting, there was no question about media access to the campus. Three students were dead, three others wounded, and it was indisputably a crime scene.
No one, including me, would argue that we should have been allowed to traipse onto that campus that day.
Then came the students’ first day back at school, this last Monday, more than two weeks after the shooting.
The Hart District put a notification out to the media: They asked/told the media to stay off the campus and not bother the kids, and a press conference would be held at the church next door to the school, featuring a few selected students who wanted to speak.
Incidentally, those kids who spoke represented themselves and their campus community very well that day.
Do I still believe in the legitimacy of the media’s right to cover news on public school campuses? Yes, I do — depending on the circumstances.
But on Monday, the right thing to do was to keep a respectful distance. We respected the Hart District’s wishes, and thankfully, so did the assembled broadcast media, a good portion of which has a well-earned reputation for being overly rambunctious.
The kids, the faculty members, the staff — they’ve all been through enough. They just needed to try — under awful circumstances — to resume some sense of normalcy. And certainly the presence of not just the few SCV media outlets but all of the L.A. and national media would have disrupted that.
There’s that caveat. We have a statutory right to cover news on public school campuses, unless we would disrupt the education process or create a safety hazard. And on that day, there’s no question that our very presence would have been a disruption.
We didn’t need to be on campus that day. We needed to leave the kids alone, let them have their space and, as best they could, try to just become students again.
That’s the priority now.
Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays. On Twitter: