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Shawnee Mission school leaders under review over complaints they stopped students' free speech

On Friday April 19, to mark remembrance of the 1999 mass killing at Columbine High School, and victims of gun violence else where  thousands of students across the Kansas City metro participated in rallies and a National Walkout Day.  Shawnee Mission district students later complained they were censored by school administrators
On Friday April 19, to mark remembrance of the 1999 mass killing at Columbine High School, and victims of gun violence else where thousands of students across the Kansas City metro participated in rallies and a National Walkout Day. Shawnee Mission district students later complained they were censored by school administrators

Shawnee Mission School District officials are looking into student complaints that administrators at Shawnee Mission North High School and Hocker Grove Middle School infringed on students' freedom of speech at a gathering Friday for National Student Walkout Day.

"It’s been brought to our attention that some of the events that occurred at Hocker Grove and Shawnee Mission North did not go as planned," school officials said in a statement Tuesday to The Star.

"We are committed to carefully reviewing what happened and adjust our directions with building administrators to ensure our students’ rights to free speech are honored," the statement said.

District officials said that after the Friday morning walkout, students at North complained that administrators took over what they had promised would be a student-led walkout. Students told local news organizations that they were censored and that school administrators told them what they could say. The complaints have led to an investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas.

Students said school officials made a script of what would be allowed during the 17 minutes students were permitted to gather. And at the middle school, students complained their event was cut short because school officials said they had not approved gun control or gun violence language used during their promised time to mark the 17 students and teachers killed Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

And at the Shawnee Mission high school, student journalists who took photos of an impromptu student-led rally on the school lawn after the 17 minutes were up complained that Associate Principal, Brock Wenciker confiscated their cameras.

Shawnee Mission North junior Grace Altenhofen, who spoke at a school board meeting Monday night, told board members that students photographers were told by Wenciker "they weren’t allowed to cover the event because he didn’t approve of the subject matter.”

ACLU officials said said they had received a host of complaints from students and parents about the behavior of school officials.

While Shawnee Mission spokeswoman Shawna Samuel said she was not aware of an ACLU investigation, Lauren Bonds ACLU legal director, said the district had been contacted.

"There seems to be some acknowledgment that an incident did occur," Bonds said. Students and parents were interviewed by the ACLU. "There are more facts we want to gather."

Bonds said the ACLU has concluded that the Shawnee Mission events were not school sponsored but rather they were school tolerated. If the events weren't school sponsored, she said, the schools can't prevent students from talking about political issues. There is no basis for the schools to censor what students do, she added, unless it can be considered disruptive.

"From what we can tell the only disruption was when school administrators came out and tried to censor students," Bonds said.

She said the ACLU did receive some complaints from students at other school districts in the state, including Topeka and Derby, but those did not rise to the level of complaints made in Shawnee Mission. Some other districts, she said, had considered limiting students' participation but after researching the issue "they did not restrict students or censor the students' speech."

The students at North and Hocker Grove walked out of school Friday along with thousands of other students in the area and across the country as part of a National School Walkout Day. The national event was organized to mark 19 years since the 1999 Columbine school shooting in Littleton, Colo., and to remember the victims of all school shootings.

Students held rallies and walkouts to protest gun violence and call for legislative action to create what they call "sensible gun control" laws, including stricter background checks and age limits on the purchase of military-style assault rifles.

In a letter to parents the day before the walkout, Shawnee Mission district officials said while the walkout was not endorsed by the school or staff, students who wanted to participate would be allowed to "honor the 17 people who lost their lives in the Parkland, Florida, shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School," and "show solidarity to support safe schools across the nation."

Tuesday's statement from the district said it "encourages and supports student civic engagement." The statement said, "We are in the business of education, not of arranging student demonstrations. We apologize for any oversights that might have been made. We support our students and their voices, and accordingly, will use what we learn from this review to adjust our planning for future events."

A note from the school board said it "supports students as they exercise their right to free speech in civil and nondisruptive ways."

The Shawnee Mission Post reported that at the school board meeting the audience applauded after Altenhofen's remarks, and that Interim Superintendent Kenny Southwick thanked the student.

Southwick apologized for "anything that was done to try to censor students" and promised to review the student complaints. "I’m going to take personal responsibility for some of the things that happened."

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