ACLU Sues Shawnee Mission Schools, Alleges District Violated Students' Free Speech Rights | KCUR

ACLU Sues Shawnee Mission Schools, Alleges District Violated Students' Free Speech Rights

May 31, 2018

Updated at 4:20 p.m. Thursday with response from the district.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas is suing the Shawnee Mission School District for allegedly violating students' free speech rights.

Students complained in April after administrators in several schools allegedly censored students during the nationwide walkouts protesting gun violence. Among other incidents, students said a Hocker Grove principal  pushed a student for mentioning school shootings in a speech and an administrator at Shawnee Mission North confiscated a student journalist's camera.

After the district vowed to address the issue, the ACLU of Kansas rescinded its threat to sue

At a SMSD board meeting in May, interim Superintendent Kenny Southwick provided an update on his investigation into the matter. He said he'd been conducting one-on-one interviews with students and parents and promised to bring First Amendment training to the summer administrator retreat. 

"Our understanding was that their investigation would lead to a corrective action plan, an acknowledgement that rights were violated, and, if appropriate, discipline for certain staff and employees," said Lauren Bonds, legal director for the ACLU of Kansas.

Bonds said what happened instead is concerning. According to her clients, she said Southwick has used one-on-one meetings to "retroactively justify some of the actions and conduct at the walkout." 

Furthermore, Bonds said, Southwick has allegedly taken a position on behalf of the district that students' rights under the First Amendment and the Kansas Student Publications Act were not violated.

"I don't see a lot of value in administrator training if they're going to say everything they did was in accord with the constitution," Bonds said.

Bonds said she's not surprised by how the matter has been handled.

"We have raised a number of First Amendment concerns — whether on behalf of employees, parents — with the district that have been largely ignored or dismissed," Bonds told KCUR.

The lawsuit filed Thursday aims to ensure that in the future, students will be allowed their rights to free speech and free press without risk of retaliation or discipline. It also seeks money damages from the district.

In a written statement, district spokesperson Shawna Samuel said though the district cannot comment on pending legal matters, SMSD "has been and continues to be in communication with the ACLU, who is representing the three students, about its concerns regarding student speech." And, that it has "successfully resolved most parent and student concerns."

Andrea Tudhope is a reporter for KCUR 89.3. Email her at andreat@kcur.org, and follow her on Twitter @_tudhope.