Shawnee Mission students wanted to have their say. School leaders shouldn’t get in the way

Angry young African woman yelling into a megaphone as she makes her grievances known at a demonstration or rally side view on white
Angry young African woman yelling into a megaphone as she makes her grievances known at a demonstration or rally side view on white Big Stock Photo

The Shawnee Mission School District issued a relatively quick mea culpa this week in what appears to be a case of overreach by a few administrators.

It shouldn’t have been necessary. Not at this point, more than two months after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that launched a wave of student activism on gun violence across the country. Districts have had plenty of time now to develop protocols and educate their staffs about students’ free-speech rights.

Shawnee Mission admitted that some of the events “did not go as planned” when students attempted to participate in National Student Walkout Day last Friday.

Students across the metro area took part in various ways. But at Shawnee Mission North High School and Hocker Grove Middle School, students say that their words had to be scripted and approved by administrators. It’s not free speech if it’s been vetted and curated.

Also disturbing is the allegation that an associate principal confiscated the cameras of the high school journalists covering a rally, merely because the administrator disapproved of the subject matter. The implication is that he was willing to use his authority to stop speech that he found troubling.

That’s disconcerting.

The charge of student protests being orchestrated by adults is not unique to Shawnee Mission schools. In previous walkouts, students in surrounding districts have complained that their events were micromanaged by principals overly eager to control every detail. And some districts even penalized students for missing classes when they knew ahead of time what events had been planned.

Strong educators walk the line between guiding students and making decisions for them. They manage to encourage civic engagement and civil dialogue, even if they don’t necessarily agree with the message.

School districts are responsible for student safety and obviously cannot allow protests to routinely cut into instruction time. So there are limits and legitimate reasons for administrative input.

But the American Civil Liberties Union shouldn’t have to step in to ensure that school administrators don’t trample the rights of students. The ACLU is investigating these incidents, a response to complaints from Shawnee Mission parents and students.

Students who are are forging a path as budding activists are to be commended.

Gun violence could well become this generation’s defining issue, though it remains an open question whether the teenage activism of the last several weeks extends beyond this school year.

But whatever happens next, adults should be allies, not blockers, as students engage and explore their rights to free speech.