Celeb Pre-School Is a Paparazzi Hot Spot

children and the paparazziABC News

All grown up now, Justin Henry, the child star of the 1978 hit movie "Kramer vs. Kramer," rarely finds himself in the spotlight, or in the crosshairs of a paparazzi camera lens.

But Henry and scores of other angry parents are accusing the snapshot hounds of putting their pre-school children in harm's way in their pursuit of lucrative celebrity photos.

"The paparazzi feel they are in some ways entitled because this is Los Angeles, that these people are celebrities and they signed up for this," Henry told ABC News. "That may be true, but for the people that are kind of caught in the middle, it's unfair."

In this case, "the middle" is the First Presbyterian Nursery School in Santa Monica, Calif., a renowned pre-school that boasts of kids from diverse backgrounds and focuses on the social and emotional well-being of the children as well as educational vitality.

The pre-school has long attracted celebrities. Currently, the children of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, and also of Meg Ryan, attend.

We know this because photos of the celebrity parents and their children are among the countless shots featured in entertainment magazines around the globe. The photographers catch them in a parental routine shared by millions of other parents -- dropping off and picking up their kids from school.

While those photos may bring good money to the pockets of the photographers, the parents say the process of getting those shots has resulted in daily chaos, insults and even physical injury -- and they want city officials to do something about it now.

"The cars are following them [the celebrities] much like [they followed] Princess Diana -- they kind of screech, park illegally and they jump out and swarm," said Geoffrey Blake, a school parent. "It's akin to what happens when you throw a group of sharks chum."

"They really don't think about safety first," Henry told the Santa Monica City Council this week. "They shoot first and ask questions later. And it is really just a matter of time before someone gets pushed into the streets and one of the children gets seriously hurt. And we will wonder why we didn't do something about it when we could."

Dozens of letters from parents have poured into city officials detailing incidents where kids have been pushed over by swarming photographers unaware of the knee-high youngsters below.

One parent wrote that police had to be called when a swinging camera caught him in the head.

Blake -- who is an actor himself -- told city officials that cursing by the photographers within earshot of his 4-year-old son and other children is commonplace.

"One of the techniques they use is four-letter words," he said. "They swear to try and provoke the celebrity because the angry reaction shot is worth more to them than the happy reaction shot."

But veteran celebrity photographer Ben Evenstad, who co-owns the National Photo Group, has a reaction of his own: He is skeptical about some of the reports and wonders why the police aren't routinely called in.

"Jumping over fences or climbing over cars, blocking peoples' access on public sidewalks, blocking alleyways: Those are all illegal," Evenstad pointed out. "And if any parents or school officials or anyone saw those activities, they should call the police and the police should come out and enforce the law."

Evenstad -- whose company supplies photographs for many popular publications, including People magazine, Us weekly, The Enquirer and The New York Times -- said there are always a few bad apples in any profession. But he insisted that, for the most part, the paparazzi safely are doing jobs protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

"I understand that photographing Jennifer Garner going to pick up her child for the eighth time, that the parents might look at the 10 photographers there and wonder how this is 'news gathering?'" Evenstad said. "But the point is that to entertainment magazines, it is, and does have news value."

News value or not, celebrities have had some injurious brushes with paparazzi.

Actress Lindsay Lohan was cut and bruised after a photographer allegedly drove his vehicle into her car. And Scarlett Johansson reportedly crashed her car while being chased by photographers.

Over the years, "Legally Blonde" actress Reese Witherspoon has accused photographers of trying to force her off the road, of assaulting her and her children with curse words and of harassing her family at Disneyland.

Santa Monica city officials agreed the possible effect on the children was cause for concern and voted unanimously this week to investigate the parents' concerns, to make sure police were enforcing existing laws and to consider the idea of a 100-foot "buffer zone" around the school to keep celebrity photographers at a distance.

But history suggests most legal efforts aimed at curtailing the activity and access of celebrity photographers fall short. Anti-paparazzi campaigns in Malibu and Los Angeles still are talk and no action.

California does have one bill on the books designed to rein in overzealous paparazzi.

In 2005, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger -- whose family was the target of extreme paparazzi tactics in the 1990s -- signed a bill that tripled the amount of money in damages people can win if they are assaulted by paparazzi in pursuit of a photo. It also blocked photographers from making money from photos acquired during altercations.

As far as veteran celebrity photographer Ben Evenstad is concerned, there are sufficient rules and regulations protecting the public -- famous or not. And in the end, he said, the object of the photo does not call the shots.

"The choice of whether to be covered by the media is not the subject's choice," Evenstad said. "I have gone for Scarlett Johansson and she says, 'You can't take my picture, I don't want you to.' But this is not how it works.

"Taking choice and putting it into a school's hand or a shop owner's hand, that's just not how it works," he added. "People are going to get covered if they are newsworthy and we can make money by taking their picture."