Opinion
Student Well-Being Opinion

Their Story About Trying to Meet Betsy DeVos Went Viral. But These Students Don’t Feel Heard

By Olivia Doyle & Abigail Wheatley — April 29, 2019 | Corrected: April 30, 2019 4 min read
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks with Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin before a roundtable discussion this month at Bluegrass Community & Technical College in Lexington, Ky.
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Corrected: A previous version of this essay incorrectly stated that no publication contacted the authors about their editorial. A reporter did send the students a message on a social media platform they do not regularly check.

On April 18, we published “No Seat at the Roundtable,” an editorial in our school newspaper on being denied entry to a meeting with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in our hometown of Lexington, Ky. Our editorial focused on the fact that we were denied entry as students to an event that was about students’ education. Even though it was an open-press event, we weren’t allowed in because we hadn’t RSVP’d—something we didn’t know we were supposed to do. We invite you to read our piece, but for us this story is now about something even bigger.

On April 19, the Lexington Herald-Leader, our local paper, reported on our editorial. Three days later, we heard the news that The Washington Post published its own piece about our experience. In the moment, it was hard to wrap our heads around the attention we were receiving. The piece went “viral,” with more than 12,000 hits on our website in seven days. We reached a wider audience than we ever imagined.

A few days later, we were still trying to process that we had been recognized by The Washington Post when we received word via Twitter that CNN covered our editorial as well. Sitting in Abigail’s driveway, our heads spinning in disbelief, we saw on Apple News that USA Today wrote about our experience. We couldn’t believe it.

That night, we spoke with Olivia’s parents about our accomplishments, and the heights we had reached. We discussed the ups and downs of the day, relaying all that we could remember. It felt as though the entire week had been crammed into one day; it was all such a blur.

We are grateful for our unexpected national and international platform, but this experience has had its highs and lows. We were excited to spread our message, but we have been saddened to find that most of the media outlets who covered our story sidestepped us.

We feel our story may have been co-opted to create a narrative we did not intend. The headlines in much of the media coverage used words like bashing, blast, and slam, suggesting that we were attacking DeVos. We did not want our editorial to be partisan in any way or make it appear as though we meant harm.

These publications misconstrued our words. We just wanted to relay our experience of trying to emphasize what happens all too often to students: We’re shut out of conversations when it comes to discussion about what’s best for us. We want our seat at the table.

While we are extremely grateful to the media organizations that picked up our story, we don’t know if they fully got our message. Through all of the hype, our firsthand account hasn’t been put into context.

Getting the facts about our experience out to the world and getting people to hear our story was our goal. None of the publications asked to meet us or discuss our issues. It was yet another instance where we were denied our voice.

And we still haven’t gotten an answer to the questions our editorial asked: Why did a roundtable discussion on education require an invitation, and why were no public school educators invited? The U.S. Department of Education described the event as “a conversation on education freedom and the importance of giving every student in Kentucky the opportunity to access the education option that works best for them.”

We understand that many believe we as students do not have the same power that adults do. Although we are young journalists, we have the same passion as professional journalists. The adults in power are doing exactly the opposite of what we intended, which was to use our voice. As a result, we haven’t been able to control our own narrative. It’s important for adults to remember that we have things we want to say, and maybe they should consider the fact that the faults in education are because no one asks us what actually works for us.

But not all adults didn’t listen to us. The campus that hosted the event—the Bluegrass Community and Technical College—called us and met with us to discuss our experience. We met with the college’s president and a member of the school’s communication team. (We hope they’re considering our suggestion that they no longer agree to hold these types of closed events on their campus.) We even received an encouraging message from 2009 Pulitzer Prize editorial writing winner Mark Mahoney.

With help from other groups in the community such as The Kentucky Coalition for Open Government who answered our questions about open meetings law, we were able to update our story. Lexington Herald-Leader reporter Valarie Honeycutt-Spears shared contact information for the U.S. Secretary of Education’s office to help us update.

We are humbled for being told that we have inspired so many people. Knowing that our words have made such an impact is mind-blowing. However, our position hasn’t changed. We are still longing for a voice for students and any stakeholders in public education.

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