By Gabriel Greschler, Student Press Law Center
UPDATE: Shawnee Mission School District settled with the ACLU of Kansas and the students they represent on April 18.
“The settlement is a victory for students across the Shawnee Mission School District,” said Lauren Bonds, legal director and interim executive director of the ACLU of Kansas, in a press release. “We’re pleased that the school district will install new policies and procedures to ensure students in the future will not have their free speech rights violated at school.”
The school district said in a statement, which can be in its entirety here, that the parties have agreed to collaborate on First Amendment training for all district administrators, adopt policy language in the district that clarifies the First Amendment rights of student journalists.
The district also apologized to the plaintiffs and paid nominal damages of $1 to each plaintiff, as well as attorneys’ fees and costs associated with the case in the amount of $40,000.
“We are pleased that we have finally been able to sit down and come to agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) so that we can continue to move forward,’ said Dr. Mike Fulton, Shawnee Mission superintendent. ‘Our focus must be on preparing each student for life-success when they leave us, and the settlement will help us to continue our focus on teaching and learning.”
UPDATE: The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas filed a federal lawsuit against Shawnee Mission School District, claiming its response to student walk-outs on April 20 violated its students’ First Amendment rights.
“Instead of allowing these students to exercise their First Amendment rights … the Shawnee Mission School District and its representatives unconstitutionally prohibited students from even mentioning the topic of gun violence in their protests,” the lawsuit states. “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.”
UPDATE: Shawnee Mission School District sent a letter on April 27 to students and parents apologizing for the incident.
“District administrators have initiated … dialogue, meeting with students and parents to make sure any issues that arose on April 20 are addressed and that those issues do not arise again. As a district, we apologize and commit to do right by our students.” Read the full statement here.
KANSAS — As student journalists across the nation were reporting on high school walkouts on April 20, yearbook and newspaper photographer Stephanie Whisler found her coverage squelched by her associate principal.
Overland Park, Kan.-based Shawnee Mission North students had just ended their walkout at their football field, and were starting an unsanctioned one at the school’s front yard when Associate Principal Brock Wenciker told students and student media to return to class.
While Whisler was snapping photos from a school-owned camera, Wenciker took it from her hands. Junior Johnny Dinh Phan captured the moment on Snapchat.
Whisler went into Wenciker’s office at the end of the day. She asked for her camera back, and he gave it to her. All her photos remained.
“It made me feel mad,” Whisler said. “It’s unfair for student journalists to be told what they can and can’t cover.”
Grace Altenhofen, who is a staff writer for Shawnee Mission North’s The Mission, was participating at the walkout as a protester. She was so dismayed by what happened to Whisler she gave a speech at a Shawnee Mission School District board meeting on April 23 condemning Wenciker’s actions.
“”If an associate principal can break the law, and get away with it, what kind of example does this set for us?””
Grace Altenhofen, staff writer for The Mission
During the speech, Altenhofen cited section 3(a) of the 1992 Kansas Student Publications Act, where it states “Material shall not be suppressed solely because it involves political or controversial subject matter.”
Altenhofen believes Wenciker violated the 1992 Act.
“If an associate principal can break the law, and get away with it, what kind of example does this set for us?” Altenhofen said to the board members.
Kansas Press Association Executive Director Doug Anstaett and association attorney, Max Kautsch, say Wenciker’s actions are a “clear violation” of the 1992 Act.
“It’s an absolute tragedy,” said Anstaett. “These [administrators] aren’t being taught the law.”
Kansas Scholastic Press Association President Jessica Bowman agrees with Anstaett and Kautsch.
“KSPA’s position would be that, if indeed the situation occurred as it’s being reported…[it] would be explicitly contrary to the student publications act,” Bowman said in an interview to the Shawnee Mission Post.
Wenciker isn’t the only one under fire for clamping down on the walkout. Other administrators at Shawnee Mission North are being criticized for censoring student speech. Words and statistics regarding gun violence were prohibited at the original school-approved walk out — one of the main reasons why students created an unsanctioned walkout.
And just two miles away at Hocker Grove Middle School in Shawnee, Associate Principal Alisha Gripp allegedly confiscated and tore up speeches students had drafted for another walkout. The ACLU of Kansas is investigating the situation.
Brock Wenciker referred all interview requests to Director of Communications for Shawnee Mission School District Shawna Samuel. She provided a statement in response to criticism over the handling of the walkouts.
“It’s been brought to our attention that some of the events that occurred at Hocker Grove and Shawnee Mission North did not go as planned. We are committed to carefully reviewing what happened and adjust our directions with building administrators to ensure our students’ rights to free speech are honored. We are in the business of education, not of arranging student demonstrations. We apologize for any oversights that might have been made. We support our students and their voices, and accordingly, will use what we learn from this review to adjust our planning for future events.”
Editor’s note: Grace Altenhofen is in contact with the Student Press Law Center’s legal team regarding the April 20 situation at Shawnee Mission North.
Correction: A previous version of this article spelled Stephanie Whisler’s name wrong.
SPLC staff writer Gabriel Greschler can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6318. He is on Twitter @ggreschler.