Shawnee Mission schools take action after ACLU says students' free speech was stifled

Shawnee Mission school officials will give updates on an investigation into complaints that administrators stifled students' free speech during rallies in April.
Shawnee Mission school officials will give updates on an investigation into complaints that administrators stifled students' free speech during rallies in April. The Kansas City Star

The Shawnee Mission School District is ready talk about the way some administrators treated students during last month's National School Walkout Day — and what it plans to do about those actions.

The district called a special meeting for 6 p.m. Monday to update students and parents on its investigation into claims that school leaders at Shawnee Mission North and Hocker Grove Middle School infringed on the free speech of students at an April 20 rally protesting gun violence.

The district investigation is in response to a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, which had heard from parents and students.

After their rally, students at North complained that administrators took over what they had promised would be a student-led walkout, the district said.

Students told the media and later the ACLU that they were censored. They said school officials made a script of what students could say during a 17-minute protest, which marked the 17 students and teachers killed Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla..

In addition, student journalists who took photos of an impromptu rally on the school lawn after the allotted 17 minutes complained that an associate principal confiscated their cameras. Students said they were told by their school leaders that they could face disciplinary action.

At the middle school, students complained their 17-minute event was cut short because school officials said they had not approved language about gun control or gun violence.

ACLU officials, in a letter to the district, threatened legal action if the district did not rescind all discipline, retrain all employees on student's First Amendment rights and communicate "a proposed corrective action to each impacted student."

School officials said on Friday they had never intended to punish the protesters.

Four days after the rallies, the district said in a statement that it "encourages and supports student civic engagement." The statement also apologized for any oversights and said the district would use its investigation "to adjust our planning for future events."

The ACLU's letter cited 1969 court ruling saying that public school students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." It continued: "School officials may prohibit student speech only when they reasonably believe that the student expression will substantially interfere with the work of the school or impinge upon the rights of other students."

The ACLU letter called for the district to respond with a plan by 5 p.m. Thursday, but extended that time limit at the request of the district.

At a board meeting last week, Interim Superintendent Kenny Southwick apologized for "anything that was done to try to censor students" and promised to review the student complaints. He vowed "to take personal responsibility for some of the things that happened."

In addition to the walkout investigation update, the board on Monday will also discuss a new version of incoming superintendent Michael Fulton’s contract and the Legislature's school funding bill. It also will present an update on district finances.