Shawnee Mission School Board updated on free speech investigation. Many not satisfied

Shawnee Mission school district is investigating claims that some school officials stifled students' free speech during last month's National School Walkout day
Shawnee Mission school district is investigating claims that some school officials stifled students' free speech during last month's National School Walkout day The Kansas City Star

Shawnee Mission School Board members on Monday got a first update on the district's investigation into whether school administrators infringed on students' free speech.

Interim Superintendent Kenny Southwick told board members he has spent a substantial amount of time talking to students, parents and school officials in his investigation of the claims but "the investigation is not complete." He said he had no resolution to report and that it will likely be after school lets out for the summer break before he can draw any conclusion.

"If we are going to do this, we are going to do it right. We are going to be thorough," Southwick said.

He also said that regardless of the outcome of his investigation the district was likely to host a training session in the fall for all school administrators on students' free speech rights.

The investigation was sparked by student and parent complaints that some students involved in last month's National School Walkout Day were censored by middle and high school officials.

Students said they were told what they could and could not say during a student-led and school-approved walkout rally. Some student journalists complained that after they took photos of an impromptu student protest on the school lawn their cameras were confiscated by an associate principal.

Initial complaints came from students at Shawnee Mission North High School and Hocker Grove Middle School. Students at North complained that administrators took over what they had promised would be a student-led walkout. Hocker Grove students complained their event, planned to last 17 minutes, was cut short because school officials said they had not approved language about gun control or gun violence.

Students who attended Monday night's sparsely attended special meeting, said they were not satisfied with Southwick's report to the board.

"I felt like the negative aspects of what happened were swept under the rug to focus on the positive and not on what went wrong," said Alex Patterson, 16, a student at Shawnee Mission West High School. "In my mind what went wrong was that school administrators suppressed student's First Amendment rights.

The National Walkout Day was recognized by thousands of students across the country to bring attention to school violence, call for sensible gun legislation and to remember the students shot to death at school in 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. Organizers of the national event expected that students would walk out of class for the day and participate in some type of gun violence awareness event.

It was the second such national walkout held. The first was held on March 12 nearly a month after a 19-year-old brandishing a AR-15 assault rifle stormed into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where he killed 17 students and faculty.

Unlike the second walkout, the first walkout organized by survivors of the Parkland shooting to remember those killed was to last just 17 minutes. Shawnee Mission students were on spring break for that recognition and unable to participate in the walkout.

School administrators agreed students could observe 17 minutes during the April 20 walkout.

Alex, who walked out of class and stayed beyond the school allotted time, said that Shawnee Mission West school administrators "tried to alter the meaning of the event saying that it was 'not a political protest' and that the walkout was to 'promote school safety' even though the walkout was political and was to protest arming teachers with guns."

He said his school slapped him with an unexcused absence, even though his parents called him out of school for the day to observe the national event.

District officials said no students were punished for participating in the walkout.

Days after the event, students and parents complained to the American Civil Liberties Union that students were told they would be disciplined for protesting longer than the 17 minutes authorized by the schools. The ACLU in a letter to the district threatened to start legal action against it for stifling students' freedom of speech unless the district suspended any disciplinary action, developed an action plan for how to handle future student protests and trained school staff on student First Amendment rights.

The ACLU's letter cited a 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. last Thursday, but extended that time limit at the request of the district.

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."

Grace Altenhofer, a student journalist with the Shawnee Mission North magazine The Mission, said she thinks that training school administrators is a good idea. But she had hoped the district would have had some answers for students at Monday's meeting.

She said she is worried that because North will be getting a new principal and new associate principals, no one will be held accountable for the events students say occurred during the April 20 walkout.

At the conclusion of the meeting, board member Heather Ousley said she was proud of the students who spoke up and that she was "sorry if any students felt their student rights were violated."