Two student journalists at Annandale High School said their digital camera was taken away and the pictures erased by Fairfax County police after they photographed officers searching a car near the school.
Police spokeswoman Mary Ann Jennings said police officials plan to meet today with the students, the student newspaper adviser and the principal to discuss the incident. Jennings said the department has the camera and is trying to recover the photos that the students said were erased.
"With the exception of retrieving items with the purpose of entering them into evidence, there's nothing in any of our rules that calls for cameras to be confiscated," she said. "We have no problem with the pictures and that's what we're going to try and get back, if we can."
Seniors Paul Gleason, the newspaper's editor, and Kyle Smeallie, its news editor, said they want an apology. They said one of the officers threatened to call the principal and have them kicked off the staff of the newspaper, the A-Blast.
"I just think it's not fair that they saw us not as journalists, but as kids," said Smeallie, 17.
Gleason and Smeallie said they were driving a friend to his car Tuesday afternoon when they saw eight police officers searching a car on Erie Street near the school in Annandale. Police patrols have been stepped up around several county high schools after a 16-year-old was severely wounded Monday in a gang-related machete attack.
The two said they went back to the newspaper office, grabbed a digital camera and returned to Erie Street, driving by slowly while Smeallie snapped several shots from the car, then turning around and driving back for more shots.
At that point, they said, police stopped them. They identified themselves as reporters for the student newspaper, they said, and an officer asked for their camera. They said another officer took it back to the group of cars, out of sight, for five minutes before giving it back. "They told us, 'We don't think you should be taking pictures of your friends like that,' " Smeallie said.
As Gleason and Smeallie drove away, they checked the camera's memory card and found it blank, they said. Erasing shots takes several steps, they said.
The students said they called their adviser, Alan Weintraut, and then returned to talk to the officer who had taken the camera.
The officer told them that "come tomorrow, you won't be on the newspaper staff," Smeallie said.
Jennings, who would not identify the officers, said the department is looking into the incident. "I'm not going to say it didn't happen, but . . . that's part of the investigation," she said. "In the meantime, we want to listen to the students." She said that they had hoped to hold the meeting yesterday but that the principal was out of town.
Weintraut, the paper's adviser for 10 years, said his students have had to make decisions about sensitive photos before. "The officer was under the perception that they would make the wrong decision," he said. "And he had to take that [decision] away from them."
Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, said the group routinely fields calls from student journalists barred from documenting events on public property. "It's a great testament to the teaching at Annandale that they knew enough . . . to question it," he said.
The students plan news stories for their paper's May 24 issue about the increased police presence after the attack and the incident in which they were involved.
Gleason said he hopes that Fairfax police are reminded that student journalists have the same rights as their adult counterparts.
"When people just don't take us seriously, it's hard for us to be the best that we can be," he said.