- Associated Press - Monday, September 21, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) - Authorities ordered hundreds of cancer-stricken children and their supporters to leave a park by the White House this weekend, citing security concerns as the president was scheduled to head to a speaking engagement.

The Secret Service ordered Lafayette Square cleared Saturday night as a vigil was about to begin during the two-day CureFest for Childhood Cancer, the Washington Post reports (https://wapo.st/1LHklyX).

Organizers knew that getting cleared from the park was a possibility, organizer Michael Gillette of Fairfax City, Virginia said, but they assumed it would be for an unanticipated threat.

“We didn’t expect the president’s travel across town would cause our event to be basically canceled,” he said.

U.S. Park Police spokeswoman Sgt. Anna Rose said the Secret Service announced the security closure for presidential movement at 7:15 p.m. President Barack Obama spoke later that night at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual awards dinner.

The closures on Pennsylvania Avenue and Lafayette Park were “put into place based on standard protocols prior to protectee movements in the vicinity of the White House Complex,” Secret Service spokesman Brian Leary said in a statement emailed to The Washington Post. “The Secret Service would like to express its regret for not communicating more effectively with this group concerning the timeline.”

Gillette said Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy called him Monday morning to apologize. The apology meant a lot, Gillette said, but he couldn’t accept it on behalf of the children.

“There are children who were in the audience who will not be there next year at this time, and there’s nothing to do or say to make this up to them,” Gillette said. The Secret Service did not answer email or telephone messages to confirm the call.

He said Clancy sounded concerned about how officers conducted themselves. Gillette noted that officers at the park were professional and polite and seemed frustrated to be in an awkward situation. Better communication would have helped, Gillette said.

If organizers knew that the closure would last hours, they could have moved the program to the hotel and walked to the other side of the White House for the vigil. Instead, they were stuck outside the park with tired children and upset parents. The group was about 750 people when the park was cleared, and it dwindled to fewer than 10 by the time the park reopened around 10:15 p.m., Gillette said.

“To be ignored to the point of having your vigil canceled, it’s disheartening,” Gillette said. “Many children told us they went back to hotel rooms and cried.”

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