High school heroes: The PLD Lamplighter burns Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for the lack of access to an open event

Last week’s coverage of the Oshkosh North Star censorship situation provided a digital version of the vintage truism about not picking a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. When student media and information suppression mix, it can be an explosive combination, much to the consternation of folks who think of high school journalists as only “playing newspaper reporters.”

The student journalists at the PLD Lamplighter found themselves at odds with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Kentucky Gov. Mat Bevin when they attempted to enter an “open press event,” only to be told they weren’t allowed inside.

DeVos and Republican Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin on Wednesday appeared at a roundtable discussion of school choice advocates at Bluegrass Community and Technical College about DeVos’ federal scholarship tax credit initiative.

But the Dunbar students said they were turned away by a man wearing a BCTC badge when they arrived to cover the event, told that it was invitation-only. PLD Lamplighter is a student-run news publication at Dunbar.

The students tried multiple times to get in to cover the event AS PRESS, only to be denied each time. When push came to shove, the students could have simply groused about their inability to gain access. Instead, they thought of their audience, the irony of the moment and how best to communicate their predicament. The result was an editorial titled “No Seat at the Roundtable” that slammed home the point:

It was heartbreaking to us, as young journalists fired up to cover an event regarding the future of education, to leave empty-handed. But as we researched we learned that we were not the only ones who were disappointed and frustrated.

There were social media posts that exhibited confusion from parents, students, and educators—especially because no public school representatives were participants in the event.

We emailed FCPS Superintendent Manny Caulk to ask if he had been invited, and he answered that he had not.

Of the 173 school districts in Kentucky that deal directly with students, none were represented at the table. Zero. This is interesting because the supposed intention of the event was to include stakeholders–educators, students, and parents.

The closing is one of those things that writers dream about writing:

There was a lesson in this experience, though. We learned that the job of a journalist is to chase the story by any means necessary. We learned to be resourceful and meet our deadline even if it wasn’t in the way we initially intended. And we learned that although students aren’t always taken seriously, we have to continue to keep trying to have a seat at the table.

What followed was attention from pretty much any media outlet you can imagine. The local publications took a look at this issue, as did the Washington Post. As is the case with most times the excrement hits the whirling wind-maker, everyone involved immediately started exclaiming how unaware of the students’ plight they all were:

U.S. Department of Education Press Secretary Liz Hill said in an email Friday morning that “no one from the Secretary’s staff was made aware that student journalists were attempting to attend the roundtable. We welcome student journalists and would have been happy for them to be in attendance. We are looking into what, if any, miscommunication might have happened between other staff on site for the event.”

BCTC spokeswoman Michelle Sjogren said Friday that “our security people were working off of instructions from Secretary DeVos’ team, they were told there was an invitation list.”

“The instructions we were given were …whoever is coming in needs to be on the list,” said Sjogren. “We had an RSVP list.”

Sjogren said she was made aware of the editorial Thursday night and sent an email to Dunbar Principal Betsy Rains.

“I said, …Dunbar students and any high school students are welcome on our campus at anytime. This was not our event and we did not set the protocol for it. We were just following instructions. It wasn’t our decision,” Sjogren said.

This wasn’t so much of a miscommunication as it is a representation of the unfortunate state of how too many people tend to view “student media.” This is why it always matters when we can shine a light on how any one of us is being treated in the media world. How one of is is treated reflects on all of us.

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