By Katy Bergen and Robert A. Cronkleton, The Kansas City Star
The Shawnee Mission school board at a special meeting Tuesday night agreed to a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union over a lawsuit alleging the district violated students’ First Amendment rights during a protest against gun violence.
The ACLU had filed the lawsuit in federal court last year alleging that the school district violated students’ freedom of speech when school officials abruptly stopped student-led rallies for April’s National Student Walkout Day.
School officials also allegedly limited student speech at the rallies and snatched cameras away from a student journalist taking photos. Some of the students said they were told they would face disciplinary action for participating in the protests and talking about gun violence.
The ACLU of Kansas announced in a press release Tuesday that it had reached a settlement agreement with the district. But because the plaintiffs in the case are minors, the settlement is not final until is it approved by a judge.
The ACLU and the district have agreed not to release details of the settlement until then, said Lauren Bonds, legal director and interim executive director of the ACLU chapter.
“The district has agreed to concrete steps that we think will protect student rights,” she told The Star.
These steps include new measures for non-school sponsored events, according to the ACLU.
“The settlement is a victory for students across the Shawnee Mission School District,” Bonds said in the release. “We’re pleased about school district measures to ensure future students will not have their free speech rights violated at school.”
The student-led walkouts and rallies on April 20 were scheduled to last for 17 minutes to mark the deaths of 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. The students were protesting gun violence and supporting increased school safety.
The students who brought the suit are named in court documents only by initials:
- M.C., who was an eighth-grader at Hocker Grove Middle School, 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., who was a junior at Shawnee Mission North High School, was 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., who was also a junior at North, was 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.
In September, the district had filed a motion to have the student claims dismissed. But last month, U.S. District Court Judge Julie Robinson ruled that the case could continue.
As of late November, the district had spent more than $36,000 on legal fees associated with the case.
The Associated Press: ACLU: Deal reached in students free speech case in Kansas