Following National School Walkouts, ACLU says it’s prepared to take legal action if Shawnee Mission doesn’t address First Amendment issues

Kenny Southwick has been interviewing students and staff members about the issues surrounding the National School Walkout demonstrations April 20.

The Shawnee Mission School District has asked for more time to review the alleged censorship of students participating in and covering National School Walkout demonstrations after receiving a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas threatening legal action.

Students at SM East and SM North say administrators told them they couldn’t mention gun violence in their demonstrations. Photo credit Diana Percy.

The letter, delivered to the district last week, set a deadline of 5 p.m. today for the district to “rescind all discipline, retrain all employees on students’ First Amendment rights, and communicate a proposed corrective action to each impacted student.”

The ACLU reports it has received a response from the district requesting more time to complete its own investigation.

“We appreciate the District’s response to our letter and understand that they need time to speak directly with the students who were censored on April 20th,” wrote ALCU of Kansas Legal Director Lauren Bonds. “A significant number of students at various schools were impacted and we think individualized conversations are a positive step towards a resolution. In the meantime, we will continue our investigation and plan to stay in contact with our clients.”

In the initial complaint letter, Bonds detailed reports the office had received from a number of Shawnee Mission students and parents.

Hocker Grove families told the ACLU that assistant principal Alisha Gripp had had pushed students there as she attempted to break up the demonstration after speakers mentioned guns and school shootings. Students from SM North and SM East said administrators had attempted to prevent them from directly mentioning school shootings and gun control during demonstrations. And student journalists at SM North report that their district-owned cameras were confiscated as they tried to photograph a protest.

The ACLU claims that the district’s actions amounted to “aggressive censorship tactics” that violated the First Amendment. Bonds argues that because the district went out of its way to communicate that it did not endorse the walkouts, “no reasonable student, parent, or member of the public would think that protest speeches bore the imprimatur of the district.”

“Therefore, SMSD had no legal authority to limit student speech that it deemed overly political,” Bonds wrote in the complaint letter. “Instead, SMSD would only be justified in restricting speech subject matter if it had a reasonable apprehension of disruption.”

Student organizers at SM North report that they have not heard from administrators about what, if any, punishment they will receive for leading the unauthorized protest on the school’s front lawn.

Late last week, the district issued a statement noting that Interim Superintendent Kenny Southwick had apologized for “anything that resulted in student censorship.” Sources tell the Shawnee Mission Post that Southwick has met with students and staff in recent days to gather information regarding the disputes at Hocker Grove, SM North and SM East.

The ALCU’s letter to the district is embedded below:

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