Tensions mount over Shawnee Mission administration’s moves to censor, limit access to National School Walkout demonstrations

Jay Senter - April 23, 2018 2:12 pm
SM North students gathered along Johnson Drive Friday afternoon in a sign of protest against administrators’ efforts to control what was said during a morning demonstration as part of the National School Walkout.

Frustrations over adminstrators’ efforts to control the content of their National School Walkout demonstration sent a group of Shawnee Mission North students outside for an unauthorized protest Friday afternoon — and they weren’t the only ones upset by the district’s handling of the events.

Parents and students at Hocker Grove Middle School say students were shocked when an administrator called for an abrupt end to the students’ gathering in the courtyard area after speakers mentioned gun control.

Student organizers at SM East said they were forced to remove a portion of the program that had statistics about gun deaths in the United States and that they were only allowed to talk about “school safety,” and prohibited from referencing firearms.

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And a member of the media was threatened with being physically removed from campus when she attempted to view the walkout at SM Northwest.

Upset by censorship, SM North students hold unsanctioned protest

Senior Joseph Pieken said he was “not very appreciative that the school tried to censor the event that the students worked so hard to organize.”

SM North student organizers said they’d made the decision to hold the protest on the school’s front lawn and along Johnson Drive in response to school administrators’ moves to strike portions of the walkout program that explicitly mentioned shootings and gun violence.

“Originally when we proposed our schedule, they cut out a lot of our speaking because they didn’t like the things we had to say,” said Hailey Walker, one of the event’s organizers. “They wanted to keep it very very sheltered.”

After the 10 a.m. event, students had been instructed to return to the building through the front doors. The organizers encouraged students who wanted to have a discussion about gun violence to stay outside and gather on the front lawn. About 100 students stayed for the protest, which featured speakers using a bullhorn debating gun reform.

“We decided to make this a real protest and share our ideas on open mic and talk about what is important to us and how we don’t want to be scared at school anymore,” Walker said.

Associate principal Brock Wenciker encouraged student protesters to return to the building.

When student journalists from the school’s newspaper began photographing the unauthorized protest with their school-issued cameras, associate principal Brock Wenciker told them to go back inside the building, according to students at the scene.

“When they continued to take photos of the walkout, Mr. Wenciker started to grab cameras out of the hands of the student journalists,” said one SM North student journalist.

Efforts to clamp down on students’ voices were among the reasons senior Joseph Pieken chose to remain outside after the school-sanctioned demonstration had come to an end.

“People need to start talking about these issues. I’m not very appreciative that the school tried to censor the event that the students worked so hard to organize,” he said. “I do think there need to be restrictions put in place in terms of what kinds of guns can be bought.”

As the protest entered its third hour, the student organizers said they had been told by administrators that they would be held personally responsible for leading the unauthorized protest.

“So far we don’t know what our punishment will be for walking out,” Walker said. “We kind of took one for the team. We’re going to take all the punishment.”

Here’s video of the student protest along Johnson Drive:

At Hocker Grove, students and parents surprised by administration’s attempt to end demonstration

Witnesses say administrators attempted to cut the demonstration at Hocker Grove off early.

Students at Hocker Grove had been working with administrators for several weeks on their plans for a National School Walkout demonstration, and organizers said they had communicated their intentions clearly to school leaders.

But shortly after the walkout began at 10 a.m., tensions rose.

Hocker Grove eighth grader Abby Schiller was the second speaker at the demonstration, and when she mentioned school shootings early in the program, she was interrupted by Associate Principal Alisha Gripp and told that no one was to mention “shootings or death.”

A few minutes later, when another speaker again veered into discussion about school shootings, Gripp abruptly canceled the demonstration and told students to return to the building. They were only about eight minutes in to the planned 17 minutes of programming.

At one point, a student said, Gripp confiscated and tore up another student’s speech.

While the majority of the students followed Gripp’s instructions, others remained outside and attempted to finish the program as planned.

Tami Duvall was one of about a half dozen Hocker Grove PTA parents on hand to observe the event and make sure no students left campus. She said she was shocked by the administrators’ strong reaction to the mention of gun violence.

“The minute that was mentioned — and you would assume it would be mentioned at something like this — they became very agitated,” Duvall said. “I was very surprised because I thought the kids were so orderly.”

Schiller said she felt like the administrators’ responses had exacerbated anxieties about the threat of school shootings.

“It was really hard not to be supported by our school when we wanted to talk about this,” she said.

At SM East, restrictions on mentioning guns and gun violence

SM East senior Iman Jaroudi speaks at Friday’s walkout demonstration. Photo credit Diana Percy.

Student organizers at SM East said they were disappointed when administrators at the school began exercising control over what they could and could not say during their demonstration.

The tee shirt Dean Gray wore at the rally.

Student Dean Gray said the organizers had notified administrators of their plans to hold an event that would honor the lives lost in Parkland and to talk about gun violence.

“We emailed our principal to notify him of the event, and he said that he would be happy to help,” Gray said. “A few days later, however, he told us we were not allowed to talk about gun reform or gun violence, and instead could only talk about ‘school safety.’”

Gray said he was made to remove a planned portion of his speech that provided statistics on gun violence in the United States.

“We decided to follow the guidelines provided, but we included things in our speeches that hinted at the theme of gun reform,” he said.

Gray wore a tee shirt featuring a smiley face with its mouth covered by duct tape when he made his speech as a sign of protest against the restrictions on what content was permitted during the speeches.

“We did all this so that we still had a platform to deliver our message, but this way the administrators couldn’t shut us down because we were technically following the rules,” he said.

Shawnee Mission School District spokeswoman Shawna Samuel confirmed that students had been directed by building officials to limit the content of their speeches, and that while they were encouraged to recognize the victims of school shootings and discuss the need “to continue to have safe and secure schools,” they were steered away from discussing guns.

“Their topics did not include messages about gun laws. As a public institution, we cannot take a stand one way or the other on second amendment rights. Therefore, we encouraged the students to keep the topic to school safety and honoring past victims of school shootings. The students were made well aware of this in advance of the walkout,” Samuel said.

(Of note, the SM West students’ demonstration included references to gun violence and gun control, and it was allowed to continue without interference).

Responding to a question about whether administrators exercised any control over the content of the students’ planned programs, Samuel noted that “in some instances, content had to be cut to keep the presentations within the allotted time.”

Reporter turned away from trying to cover SM Northwest walkout

SM Northwest’s demonstration was blocked by police.

Reporter Karen Dillon was on assignment for Reuters Friday, tasked with covering the local walkouts. But when she attempted to view the demonstration at SM Northwest, where around 250 students had gathered outside, she found the rally totally inaccessible. Police had the driveway blocked, preventing anyone from getting close enough to view the rally. A student resource officer approached Dillon and told her to leave or she would be physically escorted from the property. Dillon said she saw a parent approach the barricade as well and ask if he could watch his son participate in the demonstration. The officer told the man the event was not open to the public and then instructed him to leave.

Samuel said the decision to prevent access to the demonstrations was made for security purposes.

“Our number one priority is and always will be to keep students and staff safe. The walkout provided an extraordinary security challenge. We confirm we had law enforcement officers at every entrance and the surrounding perimeter to all 10 schools that participated in walkouts,” Samuel said in a statement provided to the Shawnee Mission Post. “In every instance, we require visitors who are not students and staff to check in through the front security office, so we can run a background check with their driver’s license before they can enter the property. Therefore, it is true that anyone, a parent, or a member of the media, who tried to enter school property any other way than through the security office was prohibited by law enforcement to do so. Let’s not forget that this event was about student safety. The district will never lower its safety standards for any event.”

The district said it had denied television stations’ requests to cover the events, and noted that Dillon “never contacted the communications department to request access to the campus.”

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