High school journalists blast Betsy DeVos in op-ed after being turned away from roundtable discussion

Betsy DeVos, the controversial U.S. Education Secretary, is the subject of an op-ed by Paul Laurence Dunbar High School students who feel unfairly denied entrance to her most recent education roundtable. (Photo: Getty Images)

A group of Kentucky high school student journalists blasted U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in an op-ed in their school paper after the teens say they were unfairly turned away from a roundtable discussion on education. They were led to believe the event was open to all members of the media.

The students from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington were looking forward to attending the event on Friday at Bluegrass Community and Technical College (BCTC), where DeVos was to meet with Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin to discuss, among other things, her support of the federal scholarship tax credit legislation. The initiative would use public tax dollars to fund “freedom” scholarships to private schools. 

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The teen journalists had planned to cover the event for the PLD Lamplighter, their school paper, and took their cue to attend from DeVos herself, who urged students last fall at a Town Hall on First Amendment rights to engage in person with those who have differing viewpoints.

“It is easy to be nasty hiding behind screens and Twitter handles,” DeVos said at the time, according to CBS News. “It’s not so easy face to face.”

The event was of particular significance to the students because teachers in Kentucky have opposed the federal scholarships, a.k.a. school choice legislation, in Kentucky’s General Assembly. But when the teens showed up to the roundtable at BCTC, they were reportedly denied entrance by campus security guards because they were not on the RSVP list.

The students, who had presented both their school identification and their press credentials at the door, said they did not not know RSVPs were necessary for an event that was advertised as “open to the press.” But they thought it was reasonable to expect they’d be allowed to attend anyway, as DeVos’ legislation would affect them directly.

Realizing that sitting out the discussion would mean they wouldn’t get the story they’d planned on, the students decided to explore a new angle — one in which they’d become a part of their own piece. “It was then that our story turned from news coverage to editorial,” they told the Washington Post.

While researching their story, the students discovered they weren’t the only ones who had been allegedly shunned from the event. According to them, no public school teachers, parents or students — key stakeholders, they said — had been invited.

The snubs seemed intentional to them, as they argue that the organizers of the roundtable failed to widely publicize the invite- and RSVP-only criteria. “Doesn’t ‘open press’ imply open to all press including students?” they asked.

On Saturday, the students published their op-ed, ‘No Seat At the Roundtable,’ on PLD Lamplighter’s website. In the piece, authors Olivia Doyle and Abigail Wheatley describe the scenario of being denied entry by “a man wearing a BCTC badge on his blazer.” At the time, they said were advised by a teacher to try to get in again, and if they still were denied, to demand to know why.

Instead of listening to our questions, he just repeated, ‘Sorry. It’s invitation only,'” the students wrote. 

“Not that we’re happy about it, but we understand why a student news organization wouldn’t have been considered important enough to receive a copy of the media press release. But there was no mention of an invitation,” wrote the students, who had learned of the event on social media and through their local news. “How do you RSVP when there is no invitation?”

Furthermore, the student journalists feel they deserved to be there, invitation or no invitation. “As students, we are the ones who are going to be affected by the proposed changes discussed at the roundtable, yet we were not allowed inside.” they wrote. “How odd is it that even though future generations of students’ experiences could be based on what was discussed, that we, actual students, were turned away?”

The teens even speculated as to why they may have been left out. “We wonder if the topic of school choice at the roundtable in Lexington is what kept public school students from being able to attend,” they wrote. “Don’t they want student input?”

When alerted to the students’ op-ed, those in charge of the roundtable painted the exclusion as a misunderstanding. U.S. Department of Education Press Secretary Liz Hill told the Lexington Herald-Leader 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 chimed in to say that the campus security guards “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. We had an RSVP list.” 

Sjorgren even addressed Dunbar Principal Betsy Rains in an email that 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.”

But it turns out it wasn’t just the Dunbar students who were turned away. Fayette County Education Association President Jessica Hiler — who represents Kentucky educators, who have opposed school choice legislation, told the Herald-Leader she too was denied entrance by BCTC security. Hill and Sjogren have not commented on Hiler’s claim.

The journalists are still struggling to make sense of the the omission of public school stakeholders, and called the entire situation “heartbreaking.” A reporter questioned Bevin directly about the perceived slight, and the governor replied, “Every single person who sat around this table cares about the children, not about funding, not about territory, not about power, not about politics. They care about parents. They care about students. It was a broad representation of people who care about those things.”

Yahoo Lifestyle has reached out to DeVos, who has not yet addressed the incident herself in the media, and will update this post with the secretary’s feedback.

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