Email to parents conflicts with reporter interviews; Supt. blasts Keep Columbia Free

COLUMBIA, Mo 11/23/13 (Beat Byte) -- Hickman High School principal Tracey Conrad, Ph.D. and other Columbia Public School officials have changed a story about what prompted Conrad to refuse Ryan Ferguson and his mother Leslie an on-campus interview with reporters from The Legacy, Hickman's student newspaper.

"I was initially contacted by individuals who were upset about his possible visit," Conrad wrote in an email Friday afternoon informing parents of the decision, which had been generating controversy since Keep Columbia Free reported it on their website.  "Given the amount of concern that was expressed, I had to be cognizant of the potential disruption his visit would have caused."

Columbia Missourian reporter Sky Chadde, however, wrote "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," the Missourian reported, in a story published last night. 

Other reports about the controversial decision do not mention White -- a retired Columbia police lieutenant -- or his involvement in the Hickman interview.  He is director of security for the entire school district, not just Hickman High School. 

Columbia Public Schools superintendent Chris Belcher, Ph.D. told KOMU news Friday complaints about the planned Ferguson visit went straight to Dr. Conrad.  "She [Tracey Conrad] was already getting phone calls and she was afraid it was going to disrupt the environment of the school and create potential situations that they couldn't control," Belcher told KOMU. 

So far, no parents, students, or other community members have come forward with objections to the Ferguson on-campus visit.   In fact, just the contrary.  Conrad also said nothing to Keep Columbia Free  (KCF) about what motivated her decision. 

Supt. Belcher meanwhile blasted KCF, telling reporters he was "surprised and disappointed when a local blog posted an erroneous report saying Conrad banned Ferguson from the school." 

Belcher said the report led to "many negative, hateful emails to some of our staffers," and that the district wanted to ensure the Ferguson interview went forward as a "great learning experience." 

The KCF story has since gone viral, generating over 4,800 Facebook Likes at last count. 

The interview snafu has become something of a he-said, she-said situation, with district officials insisting Ferguson was not banned from the campus, while Hickman students said otherwise. 

"You can come, but your son has been banned from the school campus," a student reportedly told Bill Ferguson, Ryan's father.

"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," Hickman student reporters Jayla Cody, Samantha Mills, Danielle Connell and Tristen Shaw said in a letter to district officials.   "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 meeting with Columbia School Board member Helen Wade, Superintendent Belcher, Assistant Superintendent Jolene Yoakum , and district publicist Michelle Baumstark, the student journalists secured a reversal of Conrad's decision.

"Ryan and Leslie Ferguson will be allowed on campus for an interview, as long as 'time, place, and manner' ensure everyone's safety," The Legacy  reported

The whole situation was a misunderstanding, Belcher told KOMU