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ACLU sues Shawnee Mission School District over students' free speech rights

Several schools around the Kansas City area participated in National Student Walkout Day on April 20.
Several schools around the Kansas City area participated in National Student Walkout Day on April 20.

The ACLU of Kansas is suing the Shawnee Mission School District on behalf of three students and their parents who accuse the district of violating students' First Amendment right to free speech.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit Thursday in U.S. District Court, taking issue with the treatment of students during National Student Walkout Day on April 20 at Shawnee Mission North High School and Hocker Grove Middle School.

The 17-minute, student-led and district-permitted walkout and rally marked the death of 17 students and teachers in Feburary at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

The Johnson County students, two from the high school and one from the middle school, claim in the lawsuit that school officials shut them down when they tried to engage in debate about gun violence or to document the event as student journalists.

District officials said they were only trying to keep students safe.

The lawsuit claims that school officials' actions were "deliberate and calculated" and that they "stemmed from the district's wish to avoid controversy and discomfort."

Since the Parkland shootings, student walkouts over gun violence have been under a national spotlight as organizers call for tougher gun laws and threaten to vote out lawmakers opposed to those changes.

After the Shawnee Mission walkout, students told district administrators, the media and eventually the ACLU that school officials had told them what they could and could not say during their protest. They said that their rally was cut short and that an associate principal confiscated the cameras of a student journalist photographing an impromptu rally on the school lawn after the 17-minute event.

"Instead of allowing these students to exercise their First Amendment rights, however, the Shawnee Mission School District and its representatives unconstitutionally prohibited students from even mentioning the topic of gun violence in their protests," the lawsuit says. "When students resisted the District’s efforts at censorship, District officials interrupted students, ordered them to stop speaking, threatened students with discipline and, in some cases, confiscated the tools that students were using to document the protests."

The suit, which names the district and interim Superintendent Kenneth Southwick as defendants, seeks to have the court require the district to develop "training programs for administrators and teachers about students' free-speech and free-press rights” as well as "money damages to the fullest extent compensable by law."

In an email Thursday, district officials said, "We cannot comment on pending legal matters, especially as it relates to specific students."

But an accompanying statement from the district said it "has been, and continues to be, in communication with the ACLU ... about its concerns regarding student speech. The district has been engaged in extensive discussions with parents and students to attempt to resolve concerns regarding student speech and has successfully resolved most parent and student concerns."

The statement goes on to say the district "will continue its efforts to ensure that students' free speech rights are respected and that students remain safe and secure in our schools."

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

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At a school board special meeting on the matter, administrators said some type of training would be arranged for staff, faculty and administrators but did not say when.

"I'm glad the students have filed this lawsuit against the district," said Alex Patterson, a junior at Shawnee Mission West High School. Patterson said he was disciplined by officials at his school for protesting on Walkout Day longer than the 17-minutes the school allotted, even though he had gotten permission from his parents.

"Something needed to be done about this because we students don't have enough power on our own to get the district to do something," Patterson said. "I'm glad the ACLU took action."

The students bringing the suit are named in the court document only by initials:

M.C., an eighth-grader at Hocker Grove, was interrupted and threatened with discipline by a school administrator because she mentioned gun violence, the suit says. She was also suspended for protesting the cancellation of the middle school event. Her mother is Erin Chudley.

S.W., a junior at North, is a student journalist whose camera — owned by the district but checked out to her for the year — was confiscated when she was trying to photograph the portion of the protest that lasted beyond the agreed 17-minute walkout. Her mother is Helen Whisler.

G. A., also a junior at North, is a student journalist for The Mission, the school newspaper. The suit says G.A. was denied the right to hear the students' intended message about gun violence. Her mother is Deborah Altenhofen.

"Students should be learning about the unlawfulness of prior restraint in journalism class, not having it demonstrated by school administrators," said Lauren Bonds, the Kansas ACLU legal director.

The lawsuit claims that while the district made it clear to students and parents that the walkout was not school-sponsored speech, district officials "made behind-the-scenes plans to impose their own content-based restriction on the protests out of an abstract desire to avoid controversy."

Kansas City area students are planning a school walkout and gun control rally on April 20, 2018.

The suit says that according to information gathered by the ACLU, the district "issued a centralized directive to all building administrators, encouraging and directing them to prohibit students from discussing guns, gun control and school shootings — the central topics of the planned protests."

Bonds said, that even though Southwick and the district did apologize, the students and their parents wanted the lawsuit filed because they are not satisfied with the district's response.

"The district has not acknowledged that the students' First Amendment rights were violated," Bonds said.

She said students told her that when they were questioned by the district officials investigating the censorship complaints, "they were made to feel like they were being interrogated, and there was no effort made to apologize to them for their rights being violated."

The lawsuit says "it has become clear … that the school district is more concerned about retroactively justifying its actions than it is with remedying its free-speech and free-press violation."

Bonds said her clients "have little confidence in the effectiveness of any training the district might seek," or in the district improving its policy "if they don't think anything they did on April 20 was a violation of students' rights."

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