ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - A rural Alaska girls’ basketball team was startled over the weekend on an away trip when at least one team member woke up while the team was sleeping to find a woman snapping still photos of the sleeping girls. The woman was later found to be a news photographer working for the Associated Press, and the incident part of an apparent misunderstanding of the news crew’s agreement with the school district.
The Shishmaref girls’ basketball team was visiting St. Michael, and sleeping in a school classroom Friday night – common practice for visiting basketball teams. At some time in the night or early morning, one of the girls woke up and captured a video of the photographer that was later posted to social media.
In the Facebook post that has since been deleted, parents and community members expressed their concern that someone would take photos of sleeping teen girls. The Bering Straits School District Superintendent says he and other school administrators have heard from many parents about the incident.
Superintendent Bobby Bolen says the reporter and photojournalist were in St. Michael “for quite some time” to report a story on the St. Michael Girls’ basketball team, the team’s resilience, spirit of the community and how the team dealt with the recent loss of a student due to suicide. The team members of the St. Michael team had been prepared with media releases for the coverage.
But in taking photos of the Shishmaref girls as they slept, “There appears to have been a misunderstanding on behalf of the project team as to whether they had approval to take the pictures in an attempt to illustrate how teams in rural Alaska travel,” Bolen wrote.
The Shismaref team had a St. Michael female coach and chaperone in the room with them at the time.
Bolen says as soon as the Shishmaref coach and school principal were notified of what had happened, the reporting team was directed by the Shishmaref principal to stop taking photos of the Shishmaref girls team, and to delete the photos that had been taken of the sleeping team members.
The reporters, who had been scheduled to leave St. Michael earlier, but were delayed by weather, were sequestered in a different part of the school until their departure flight Saturday evening. The reporters were also not allowed to continue taking photographs in the school afterward, Bolen said.
“I made it clear to the reporting team on my call this morning that the taking of pictures of children, male or female, sleeping was not appropriate,” Bolen wrote in a description of the actions and response. Further, Bolen wrote, even if the coach had given permission, the coach would not have the authority to give permission on behalf of the students’ parents.
The Associated Press says its team was shooting a photo essay highlighting the culture of girls’ high school basketball in the Bering Strait region of Alaska. “There are no plans to publish any pictures of student athletes waking up in a classroom,” the AP’s Director of Media Relations, Lauren Easton, wrote in an email to Channel 2.
Easton has not responded to Channel 2’s questions about whether the photos of the girls in the classroom were deleted. This story will be updated if Channel 2 receives a response.
Channel 2's Melinda Bolton also contributed to this report.