Three days after she witnessed her colleagues from the school newspaper and yearbook have their cameras confiscated when they attempted to photograph a unauthorized protest, a Shawnee Mission North student journalist told the board of education and district administration that she believed the action represented a violation of the Kansas Student Publications Act.
SM North junior Grace Altenhofen spoke during the public comment section of Monday’s board of education meeting, expressing her frustrations at what she characterized as the school administration’s efforts to censor students’ message during their National School Walkout demonstration.
“The administration took over the walkout and censored the students and what they could say, even making a script of what was allowed to be said,” Altenhofen said.
When students moved their protest to the front lawn of the school in an unauthorized rally, photographers from the journalism program began taking photos. At that point, according to several students who were at the scene, Associate Principal Brock Wenciker began confiscating the cameras.
“One of the associate principals came and took the cameras from all the student journalists that were taking photos of the event,” Altenhofen told the board. “He said they weren’t allowed to cover the event because he didn’t approve of the subject matter.”
Altenhofen suggested this move represented a clear violation of the Kansas Student Publications Act, namely Sec. 3 (a) which states that “Material shall not be suppressed solely because it involves political or controversial subject matter.”
“The associate principal’s removal of cameras from student journalists because he disagreed with the subject matter they were covering is a direct violation of the rights of student journalists in the state of Kansas,” she said. “If an associate principal at our high school can break a law and get away with it, what kind of example does this set for us?”
The crowd on hand at the board meeting responded to Altenhofen’s remarks with loud applause, after which board president Brad Stratton thanked her for coming forward. Stratton then turned to Interim Superintendent Kenny Southwick for his comments on the situation. Southwick thanked Altenhofen as well, and then indicated he was reviewing the situation.
“I have to tell you we’re not in the walkout business all the time,” Southwick said. “I’m going to take personal responsibility for some of the things that happened…I will personally apologize for anything that was done to try to censor students.”
Southwick said he would be “having conversations” about the situation in the coming days and anticipated communicating with the SM North community about what the district’s expectations for staff were soon.
In addition to the situation at SM North, patrons have been contacting the administration and board about the actions of staff at Hocker Grove, where an associate principal attempted to bring an early end to a planned student demonstration and reportedly put her hands on students to move them from the scene.
The ACLU of Kansas has confirmed it is investigating the situation that took place at Hocker Grove and determining whether a legal intervention is warranted.
Asked for comment on the incidents at SM North and Hocker Grove, Shawnee Mission Director of Communications Shawna Samuel issued the following statement:
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 adjusting 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 process to adjust our planning for future events.
Wenciker had submitted his resignation letter to the district earlier this year and is reportedly moving to a job with Olathe Public Schools for the 2018-19 school year.
Video of Altenhofen’s remarks and Southwick’s response is below: