Joco Opinion

Shawnee Mission schools muzzle student journalists with restrictive policy

Kansas Scholastic Press Association voices concern with Shawnee Mission policy to control student publication

Kathy Habiger, representing the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, spoke against a proposed policy to restrict student publications during the public comments portion of the Shawnee Mission School Board meeting on Wednesday, June 24, 2019.
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Kathy Habiger, representing the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, spoke against a proposed policy to restrict student publications during the public comments portion of the Shawnee Mission School Board meeting on Wednesday, June 24, 2019.

On June 24, the Shawnee Mission School District unveiled a proposed district policy claiming: “It retains the right of the district to exercise control over student publications and activities that appear to represent the school and its students.”

The Kansas Student Publications Act, a state law passed in 1993, states that “Liberty of the press and student publications shall be protected, material should not be suppressed solely because it contains political or controversial subject matter.”

Simply reading the separate policies, it is easy to see why outrage has been caused throughout the student news community. There is no way the district can say that this proposed policy follows the state law, or even our First Amendment right to freedom of the press.

A new policy was called for after the now well-known SMSD v. American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit was resolived with a settlement. It began with the national student walkout against gun violence on April 20, 2018. Grace Altenhofen, a Shawnee Mission North High School graduate, former editor-in-chief of the school’s Mission newsmagazine, and plaintiff in the lawsuit, explained:

“The walkout at North was planned by a group of student organizers who were censored by administration and prohibited from mentioning school shootings or gun violence during the protest. As a result, some students felt their voices were not being heard and broke off into a secondary protest.”

As any good journalist would, student photographers stayed during the secondary walkout to cover the event. One of these student’s cameras was then confiscated by an administrator. After this, the district faced a lawsuit against the ACLU.

Recently, parties in the lawsuit have reached a settlement. One of its clauses specifies that the district must adopt a policy for student organized events that prohibits administration from censoring student speech in order to avoid controversy.

After The Shawnee Mission Post published a brief about the proposed policy and its possible failure to comply with the settlement last week, school board members received emails and phone calls regarding this approach. This prompted Altenhofen to speak at the board meeting.

“While some phrases in the policy drafts reflect those agreed to in the settlement, others proposed were never mentioned in the agreement and are far over-reaching, providing an easy pathway to further censorship,” Altenhofen said.

Preceding Altenhofen, Kathy Habiger, Shawnee Mission West High school parent and Mill Valley High School journalism adviser, also voiced her concerns.

“It almost seems like, with this policy, the district would be asking for another lawsuit against them,” Habiger said. It would “almost certainly increase negative attention and pressure from the media.”

Habiger went on to request that the proposed board policy be removed from consideration until district administration can receive proper training on students’ First Amendment rights as well as the Kansas Student Publications Act. It is important to note that this policy has not yet been voted on, and will appear for a second reading on July 8, before being considered on July 22.

Not only does the policy in its current state fail to comply with both state law and the settlement, it muffles student voice in a time where young voices need to be heard more than ever. Although this was a school year in which school shootings occurred every 12 days on average, according to CNN, students were still told they couldn’t use the word “gun” in a walkout meant to protest gun violence. And then when sued, the district returned with a policy even more restrictive than before, which seems to be in violation of the settlement.

Once the questioning period was opened, Superintendent Mike Fulton was asked why the clause about exercising control over student publications was included. In his response, he made it clear that he understood that some of the language in the policy may not have reflected the intent of board members.

“We want to make sure we’re meeting the spirit and letter of the law when it comes to student journalists,” Fulton said. “As some have expressed tonight, maybe we didn’t perfectly find the language. We can keep working on that. I do think also we’re trying to make sure that we have appropriate mechanisms.”

Perhaps the board should consider reaching out to those in the district most familiar with the Kansas law regarding student publications: their five journalism teachers/advisers.

“The five (district) schools have arguably the strongest journalism program in the nation, as evident by the state, local and national awards they win every year,” Habiger said. “They are leaders that other schools and districts follow across the country. If approved, the proposed policy revisions could jeopardize that reputation.”

We look forward to seeing a highly-revised policy at the July 8 school board meeting. See you there.

Annalissa Houser is co-editor-in-chief of the Northwest Passage newspaper at Shawnee Mission Northwest High School.