As ACLU pushes for action, Shawnee Mission superintendent’s School Walkout update provides little new information

Kenny Southwick said he wanted more time to continue to investigate the issues and that his investigation would not be over before the school year concludes.

Students and parents hoping to get a sense of what, if any, corrective action the Shawnee Mission School District will take in response to administrators’ censorship of students during the National Student Walkout demonstrations last month left a special meeting of the school board without any clear answers.

The board called the special session Monday — two weeks ahead of its planned May meeting — in part to get an update on interim superintendent Kenny Southwick’s investigation into issues surrounding the walkouts. That investigation comes amid growing criticisms over incidents at Hocker Grove Middle School, Shawnee Mission North, and other buildings.

Southwick had acknowledged that there were issues at some of the schools in the days after the April 20 walkout, and said he would “take personal responsibility for some of the things that happened” and that “I will personally apologize for anything that was done to try to censor students.”

Hundreds of Shawnee Mission West students gathered on the school’s practice field for a demonstration as part of National School Walkout Day.

But in remarks to the board Monday, Southwick offered little new information, and spent the bulk of his time focusing on “what we did right — we did a lot of things right.”

Southwick made no mention of possible training for district staff around First Amendment issues until asked directly about it by board member Heather Ousley after he concluded his update. Southwick said he was exploring the option of having a panel discussion on First Amendment rights and other issues as part of the district’s retreat for all building administrators in July.

“That’s a little bit of, I guess, the resolution that I wasn’t necessarily prepared to talk about tonight, but since you asked, it’s in the works and that’s what I’m looking at,” Southwick said.

A panel discussion alone would appear to fall far short of the remedies requested by the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, which threatened legal action against the district if it did not take swift corrective action for the violation of students’ First Amendment rights.

In response to the ACLU’s demands, the district issued a letter requesting more time. The ACLU responded to the request with another letter delivered ahead of the special board meeting Monday.

In that letter, addressed to EdCounsel attorney Duane Martin, the ACLU asks the district to acknowledge students’ rights were violated and for administrators to apologize to students who were impacted.

“While our clients are willing to give SMSD additional time to collect facts and make apologies, they are not willing to delay litigation if administrators are going to use this time to bully students and attempt to retroactively justify their unlawful conduct,” reads the ACLU’s May 7 response letter.

(Disclosure: Eric Weslander, the Stevens & Brand LLP attorney who co-signed the ACLU response letter delivered to the district Monday, represents the Shawnee Mission Post. We were not involved in connecting Weslander or his firm with the ACLU of Kansas on this or any other issue).

At the conclusion of Monday’s meeting, Ousley, a civil rights attorney by profession, offered comments regarding patrons’ concerns about First Amendment issues surrounding the walkouts.

“I am so sorry for any of the students who felt their First Amendment rights were chilled or that they were not given the opportunity to speak their mind,” she said. “I’m so proud of the kids — all of the kids — who have spoken up for themselves.”

Ousley also noted that the district had come a long way in allowing for the open exchange of ideas about controversial issues since its ban on teachers wearing safety pins in fall 2016.

“I think that there’s been a tremendous amount of growth in the past year that now we have all of our high schools and middle schools participating in a demonstration that involves this much collaboration and effort on their part and from the administration,” she said.

The ACLU’s latest demand letter is embedded below. Video of Southwick’s comments at Monday’s board meeting follows the letter.

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