District apologizes after barring high school reporter from a press conference for asking too many questions

WASHINGTON — Following outcry after a Washington state school district official refused to admit a high school reporter into a press conference, the district apologized and admitted they made a mistake.

Deputy superintendent Jon DeJong had scheduled a meeting on Wednesday morning with The Wenatchee World, KOHO Radio and KPQ Radio to discuss contract negotiations with teachers. Students at The Apple Leaf , the student paper of Wenatchee High School, heard about the meeting, assumed to be a press conference, from a third party.

Apple Leaf managing news editor Moses Lurbur arrived at the Wenatchee School District building expecting “to go and sit in and take notes on what was a press conference at the school district office.” He was denied access, because as a student journalist, he asked too many questions, district officials said.

“I was told that it was a closed press conference and that only the reporters for the [Wenatchee] World and the two local radio stations were allowed in,” Lurbur said. He was told student reporters required more of district officials’ time.

The district offered to meet with the Apple Leaf that afternoon. Still, the student journalists, their adviser and members of the community were shocked and frustrated with the decision.

“We have never had a reporter denied entry to any kind of meeting when there were other members of the press were there,” said the Apple Leaf student adviser Dave Riggs.

Wenatchee World publisher Rufus Wood attended the afternoon briefing with Apple Leaf editor-in-chief Adrian Robinson and said he “told the administrator, Jon DeJong, and other members of the district that I was disturbed by their action to bar a student reporter from the press briefing and that I would instruct my staff to boycott any future briefing that specifically excluded the Apple Leaf. The decision was unnecessary and counterproductive.”

He said while the press conference was not a public meeting, and DeJong was within his rights to deny Lurbur access, it was the wrong decision.

“It is a legitimate news organization and they should be welcomed into that conversation,” he said.

Multiple people from the community, including a city council member, told Riggs they were appalled with the decision to exclude the Apple Leaf. Not allowing Lurbur into the meeting “created anger and animosity and bad feelings towards the school district that could have been avoided by showing respect and allowing the student into the meeting,” Riggs said.

“I think the most logical and respectful thing to do would have been to let them in and given them some parameters. Let them have a seat at the same table,” he said.

The district never intended to “muzzle” the voice of the student press, DeJong said in a statement.

“The district welcomes the voices of its students and encourages the Apple Leaf as a forum of student expression,” he said.

After Lurbur was not admitted to the meeting, Apple Leaf student editors voted on Wednesday to demand an apology from the district and to receive assurances that they would be able to attend future meetings with the press.

District superintendent Brian Flones contacted Riggs on Thursday morning and said he wants to be able to work together and move past what he described as “an unfortunate incident.”

The email was “the first voice of reason from the district since this thing came up. Flones is very much interested in mending the relationship and showing the Apple Leaf that they are a respected member of the press,” Riggs said.

DeJong also apologized.

“One of the lessons that the students learn in our schools is that when you make a mistake you must admit it, be smart enough to learn from it, and strong enough to correct it,” he said in a statement. “We plan to learn from this mistake by including the Apple Leaf on any future invitations for meetings with the other media outlets.”

On Friday, Flones followed up on his email and met with student editors at the Apple Leaf to offer an apology, despite being on leave due to a hip replacement.

Robinson, the paper’s editor-in-chief, said in a story published on the paper’s website that she was thankful for Flones’ apology.

“It means a lot to have someone of such a high standing at the district office coming in and taking responsibility for other people within his jurisdictions [sic] actions,” she said.

Contact SPLC staff writer Corey Conner at 202-974-6318 or by email.

Correction (09/19/2015): Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article incorrectly referred to what entity refused the reporter access. It was an official from the school district, not the school board. The article has been updated to reflect this.