COLUMBIA — Ryan Ferguson's mother withdrew from an interview at Hickman High School this week when she learned her son would not be allowed on campus during school hours.
Student reporters for The Legacy, the high school's newspaper, wanted to interview Leslie Ferguson on Thursday, and she agreed only if her son could be present.
"Son of Columbia": Josh Kezer, who served nearly 16 years in prison before being exonerated, has experienced that the healing process after being released is lifelong. He said he hopes the community will help Ryan Ferguson by treating him like the regular man that he deserved to be, like a "son of Columbia," like the child of Bill and Leslie Ferguson.
Freedom has a price tag: To raise national support for his son's case, Bill Ferguson toured the country, rented billboards, launched a website and created the well-known "Free Ryan Ferguson" car bearing his son's face. These efforts helped create support, but they were costly.
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Before the interview took place, Principal Tracey Conrad was told that parents objected to the arrangement. Believing Ryan Ferguson's presence would disrupt the learning environment, Conrad denied him access during the school day. Columbia Public Schools supported Conrad's decision.
The school's newspaper staff wanted to interview Leslie Ferguson about her perspective on the recent court decision that vacated her son's murder conviction. Ryan Ferguson had spent nearly eight years in prison after he was found guilty in the slaying of Kent Heitholt. The Nov. 5 ruling by the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District, led to the release of Ferguson from prison Nov. 12.
Conrad said she learned of the interview Wednesday afternoon when John White, the district's director of safety and security, told her about parents objecting to Ryan Ferguson's presence on campus.
White told her that parents contacted him to say they wouldn't send their children to school Thursday if Ryan Ferguson were there.
Conrad said she expressed her concerns to the journalism teacher at Hickman. Later Wednesday night, Conrad talked with a student in the journalism class on the phone and further explained her reasoning.
Conrad suggested having the interview after school hours or off campus, possibly at the McDonald's nearby, if the interview had to be done during the school day, district spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark said.
"Given the amount of concern that was expressed, I had to be cognizant of the potential disruption his visit would have caused," Conrad said in an email. "Given the strong emotions this case has generated, I decided that Hickman High School was not the appropriate venue for his interview.
"Although I know many will not agree with it, I made the decision based on what I believed was best for the school setting as a whole, including those who were upset or would be impacted by his visit."
Conrad said she encouraged the students to continue with the article, the focus of which is on Leslie Ferguson.
"I simply encouraged the reporters to find a different place to interview (Ryan Ferguson)," she said.
The Legacy issued a news release indicating the students didn't know the interview could be held on campus as long as it wasn't scheduled during the school day.
Leslie Ferguson learned Thursday morning that the interview could not include her son. Her husband, Bill, said a student told her, "You can come, but your son has been banned from the school campus."
Bill Ferguson said the student told Leslie Ferguson that her son would be a disruption. Leslie Ferguson then withdrew from the Thursday interview.
The district is not censoring the student newspaper, Baumstark said. Instead, due to the disruption the interview caused before it happened, the district asked the students to have the interview either off campus during the school day or on campus after school hours.
Baumstark said the school district was well within its rights to prevent disruption to the school’s educational environment.
"The school does have control with what happens in class," said Sandy Davidson, who teaches media law at MU.
The Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier Supreme Court decision in 1988, a case that originated in Missouri, offers some insight into this situation. The Hazelwood standard states a school is not a public forum, as opposed to a public park or a street.
Davidson said she didn't see anything legally wrong with the district telling students to move the interview off campus or have it after school hours.
In a letter to the district, the student reporters objected to the decision.
"We believe that Ryan and his family should not only be invited but welcome at our school, and future sources for a timely story should be as well," the letter stated.
"Not only did you (the district) take away our right to an educational experience at school, but also violated his rights by labeling him as disruptive."
After receiving the letter Thursday afternoon, the district set up a meeting with students at The Legacy, Baumstark said.
In about a two-hour meeting Friday at Hickman, Baumstark, Superintendent Chris Belcher, Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Education Jolene Yoakum and Columbia School Board member Helen Wade met with four journalism students: Jayla Cody, Samantha Mills, Danielle Connell and Tristen Shaw.
The meeting was to discuss the sensitivity of the story and how the miscommunication occurred, Baumstark said. The district officials wanted students to know the volatility of the situation, but they also encouraged them to do the story.
"Ryan and Leslie Ferguson will be allowed on campus for an interview, as long as 'time, place, and manner' ensure everyone's safety," students at The Legacy wrote in a Friday news release.
Bill Ferguson said Friday that Leslie and Ryan Ferguson were meeting with the student reporters Tuesday at an off-campus location that has not yet been determined.
He said the decision not to have Ryan Ferguson on campus suggests something is wrong with his son. He called it a "discriminatory act."
"We find the whole thing disingenuous," he said.
Conrad said in her email: "I do not believe this was unreasonable; in fact, I was trying to be sensitive to all in our school community."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.