Across Kansas and across the country, the story that will soon play out in the Shawnee Mission School District is being closely followed. Local TV, radio and newspaper reporters are expected to attend the Shawnee Mission school board’s Jan. 22 meeting, joining what is expected to be a standing-room only crowd.
A major policy change regarding open forums has become a constitutional issue. And what happens in Shawnee Mission could reverberate across Kansas and perhaps the nation.
The Shawnee Mission district, the third largest in Kansas with 27,000 students, is ground zero in the statewide controversy pertaining to restrictions on open forums. The Kansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has threatened to take the school board to court if current policies are not modified to comply with what the ACLU interprets as constitutional free speech.
Three of seven school board members are newly elected, replacing ousted or suddenly retiring incumbents. A fourth member, Brad Stratton, who serves as the new school board president, has been an outspoken critic of the way the board has conducted its business. Combined, those four form a majority. And many expect them to vote to rewrite the current open forum policies, some of which were enacted as recently as November.
What the revised policies say may determine whether there will be litigation between the ACLU and the school district.
From private discussions, it appears very likely the school board’s modified policy won’t be enough to mollify the ACLU. What the ACLU wants is an open forum where anyone in the public can exercise unbridled lawful freedom of speech, allowing negative comments about specific school board members, employees of the district, including administrators and teachers, and even students.
There is every indication that the restrictions on negative comments about specific school board members, superintendents or administrators will be totally lifted at that meeting. That was a ridiculous policy in the first place. Elected officials and top district management should always be subject to public criticism.
Where things could get a bit dicey relates to the other possible targets for public complaints, and their rights to privacy. No one has tracked the policies of all 286 school districts in Kansas, but we know that Olathe, Blue Valley, Wichita and Topeka have somewhat similar policies. School board members are fair game for public complaint, but not teachers or students. Superintendents and administrators are treated in a variety of ways by different districts.
There is a likelihood that complaints about specific teachers and students would continue to be off-limits in open forums in Shawnee Mission. There is some logic to this approach.
If, for example, someone in an open forum disparaged “Mrs. Larson,” a high school algebra teacher, for being incompetent, that might be entirely inaccurate. And such a comment broadcast to the entire community could unfairly humiliate that teacher and instantly destroy a reputation.
A student might stand up during an open forum and name the names of alleged bullies. Their names would then be shared widely. But the bullying allegations may not be true. A student might misunderstand what constitutes bullying, or the complaining student could have an ulterior motive for embarrassing other students publicly. Such complaints can be handled internally without making accusations in public.
The ACLU says freedom of speech trumps those concerns. Many legal experts do not agree. The board is bound to have high-level legal counsel at its side if members choose to only partially heed the admonitions of the ACLU.
Let’s hope that all can be resolved without a lawsuit. But odds are the ACLU will eventually have its day in court, whether it be with Shawnee Mission or another school district in Kansas.