A group of anti-vaccine and anti-vaccine mandate activists protested National Walk to School Day in Beverly Hills on Oct. 6. Protesters followed Mayor Robert Wunderlich from the Civic Center to Hawthorne Elementary School, engaging in heated exchanges with parents and picketing outside the school. The incident left many children shaken and prompted staff and administrators to scrap plans for the event.
Hawthorne Elementary prides itself on its monthly Walk to School Day organized by the Parent Teacher Association that draws scores of parents and children. For years, walkers have made their way up Rexford Drive from Kelly’s Coffee to the school, where staff and administrators wait to greet students.
For the particular walk on Oct. 6, National Walk to School Day, the PTA pulled out all the stops, promising food and prizes for participating students once they reached the school. The PTA planned to have a fitness instructor outside the school lead the students through a workout using elastic bands purchased for the occasion.
The event attracted some 200 students and parents who traveled to Hawthorne in two cohorts. But the day also caught the attention of activists who already had their eyes set on the city over state and county vaccination mandates for firefighters.
The day before on Oct. 5, at a rally against vaccine mandates for Beverly Hills firefighters, local attorney David Hakimfar encouraged the crowd at City Hall to join him and others in protesting Walk to School Day, where he said Mayor Wunderlich and School Board President Rachelle Marcus would be.
“They think it’s going to be a fun and safe photo opportunity with parents and kids. Let’s show up here and show them it’s not,” he said. “Let’s make them afraid, because it’s no longer that we need to be on the defense–we need to be on the offense.”
The protest also received a boost from the Beverly Hills Firefighter Association, the union representing firefighters in the city. Union president Victor Gutierrez also spoke at the Oct. 5 City Hall rally. According to screenshots reviewed by the Courier, the union shared a flyer on its official Instagram account that told followers to “grab your signs and come to Kelly’s Coffee” where the walk was scheduled to start.
“Do you want to tell them how you feel about forced vaccine mandate?” the flyer read.
On Walk to School morning, a group of around 10 protesters gathered at Kelly’s Coffee prior to 8:15 a.m. and confronted Wunderlich. In an effort to ease tensions, he offered to meet with them later that afternoon (and did so). Nonetheless, the protestors followed Wunderlich as he joined with the first cohort of parents and children on Santa Monica Boulevard and Rexford. “Masking children is child abuse, you mask your child you’re a child abuser,” one protester shouted.
While most parents appeared to try and ignore the protesters, the two groups found themselves in heated exchanges at times.
At the school, the protesters stood outside the front entrance with picket signs decrying vaccine mandates as “medical tyranny” and claiming “COVID-19 fear is brainwashing.”
On multiple occasions both on the walk and at the school, parents requested that Beverly Hills Police Department officers intervene in disputes. Aside from instructing people to remain on the sidewalk, police declined to get involved, citing the First Amendment.
Section 626.8 of the California Penal Code makes it a misdemeanor to “interfere with the peaceful conduct of the activities of the school or disrupt the school or its pupils.” When asked by the Courier later in the day for comment, BHPD Acting Captain Max Subin responded by highlighting a subsection of the code that states that it “shall not be utilized to impinge upon the lawful exercise of constitutionally protected rights of speech or assembly.”
“We always strive to provide the safest environment possible when individuals are expressing their first amendment rights,” Subin noted.
In addition to a number of parents who reached out to the Courier to express their frustration, School Superintendent Dr. Michael Bregy expressed grave disappointment at the events of the day. “The behavior exhibited by grown adults is nothing short of atrocious. Intimidating our youngest members of society, threatening students, and making them feel unsafe is unacceptable,” he said in a statement.
“Unfortunately, BHUSD does not have any authority outside of the school campus,” Bregy said. “The disruption of peaceful conduct on the sidewalk or public way adjacent to school buildings is where we place our trust in the jurisdiction of the Beverly Hills Police Department. BHUSD will exhaust every possible legal remedy available to us to ensure this never happens again.”
Bregy did not elaborate on the potential legal actions available to the district.
Bregy also seemed to allude to the Beverly Hills Firefighter Association’s role in promoting the event, saying, “We feel let down by the organizations and people who promoted this protest on their official Instagram account only to delete the story after the damage was done.”
Gutierrez did not respond to a request for comment.
Parents told the Courier that their children were confused and scared by the chaos.
“Many of the kids were scared that protestors were going to come into the school. My child asked me not to leave,” said one mother. (The parents who spoke with the Courier requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal by local protesters.)
“I have a five-year old kid, she doesn’t understand what’s going on. They’re standing in front of our school yelling stuff that nobody understands,” a parent who identified herself as Elena said. “If you want to protest to make a difference, make a difference with the adults. Go to the City Council, go to the school board.”
One parent told the Courier that her seven-year-old removed their mask after seeing the protesters and, once inside, “got in trouble for not wearing it.”
“I will never walk to school again,” she reported her child saying.