Belmont High School Bars Public, Town Officials, Press From Student Walkout

 Photo: Poster of the event

A student-led protest at Belmont High School will be a private affair as education officials are barring the public, town officials and the press from attending the “National School Walkout to Protest Gun Violence” event taking place on Wednesday, March 21 at 10 a.m.

“As you are aware, the public is not permitted on school grounds during this event,” said Kristen Murphy, community engagement coordinator for the district. It’s reported police will prevent traffic and people from traveling on the public access road fronting the school. Murphy noted that principals Dan Richards of Belmont High School and Michael McAllister of the Chenery Middle School will be able to speak in the subject after the event.

According to John Phelan, Belmont’s School Superintendent, only students, and staff will attend the event taking place outdoors on public space. 

“[S]tudent safety is our main concern,” said Phelan in a letter responding to William Fick, the father of one of the student organizers. Phelan defended the restrictions of outsiders attendance out of “concerns regarding student safety and minimizing disruption to the education process.” The ban includes those who only wished to observe the protest and publications and broadcasters reporting on the event.

Phelan did not provide examples how observers and media outlets would constitute a safety concern or how their presence constituted a disruption of education. A week earlier thousands of schools across the US held 17-minute  rallies without incident, including Belmont Day School located off Concord Avenue. The private elementary/middle school also invited the press to view the middle school students in their protest.

Last May, Belmont High students organized by then junior Barbara Joseph, held an impromptu rally against racism that circled Clay Pit Pond and ended by the flagpole at the school’s entry. Despite a large number of students attending, there was no public safety incidents.

Phelan was responding to Fick who raised constitutional issues on eliminating the public from the protest, specifically when it come to barring the press, calling that decision “unlawful” as the protest is a “newsworthy event.”

“In light of the nearly unfettered access BHS affords to local media for other purposes (sports, Promenade, performances, etc), the exclusion of media from the walkout is transparent “content discrimination” unrelated to any permissible basis to regulate the “time, place and manner” of protected speech activity,” said Fick, who is a Boston-based defense attorney who frequently works in partnership with the ACLU of Massachusetts. 

While the students agreed to stay on school property to respect the Administration’s “expressed concerns for decorum and safety,” “… the purpose of the protest is not simply for students to talk to each other, which they can do all day within the walls of the school, but to make their voices heard in the community and among elected officials,” said Fick.

Fick noted to Phelan that while the public will be restricted from entering school property, the access road and sidewalk running in front of the school are public ways as is the community path around Clay Pit Pond. Fick requested the school department to inform him of the “purported legal basis for any such closing of outdoor public property.”

While Fick reminded Phelan of the Supreme Court decision, Tinker v. Des Moines, that “students do not ‘shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression at the schoolhouse gate,” Phelan stated that “Belmont recognizes” that ruling, “however, there is a well-recognized legal principle that administrators must ensure safety of all staff and students as well as minimize the disturbance to the educational process.” 

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  1. Johanna Swift says

    Thank you for covering this part of the story. The students will certainly find ways to share video of their very successful event, but the heavy-handed and arbitrary restrictions passed down by the school superintendent and BHS principal were unfortunate, at best, and anti-democratic at worst. Using student safety as an excuse to exclude the press and public officials was, in my opinion, a cynical and thinly veiled effort to limit student speech and water-down the event’s impact. On a positive note, student organizers learned important lessons about dealing with bureaucrats who pay lip service to honoring one’s civil liberties but may actually be more invested in maintaining the status quo. This was an excellent teachable moment that might have been wasted if not for the clarity and determination of the BHS student protesters. I hope the next BHS principal has the courage to embrace and facilitate difficult conversations instead of trying to mute them.

  2. Kim Slack says

    Reporters do not infringe on the safety of students. Mr. Phelan needs to acquaint himself the the First Amendment and stop bullying the press from covering a public demonstration and denuding the point of the demonstration.

  3. Jonathan says

    I’m sure Phelan isn’t doing this out of political inclination or bias, but because he knows it’s a charged issue that could invite counter-protest.

    Given that other students have received threats for this, I think Phelan is being reasonable. Perhaps Fick could take his rhetoric down a notch and take enough of a break from wearing the mantle of Belmont’s constitutional guardian to show a little understanding of the context and sympathy for what Phelan is having to navigate.

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