Shawnee Mission will settle ACLU’s National Walkout Day 1st Amendment case — but we’ll have to wait to get specifics

Student protestors at SM North the afternoon of National School Walkout day in April 2018.

The Shawnee Mission Board of Education on Monday approved an agreement to settle a lawsuit organized by the ACLU of Kansas which claimed the district had violated students’ First Amendment rights by restricting speech and press coverage during National School Walkout Day protests in April 2018.

A still image from a student’s cell phone video showing then-associate principal Brock Wenciker confiscating a student journalists’ camera at SM North.

But patrons will have to wait a matter of weeks before the details of the settlement are made public.

As part of the agreement, the parties said, they will not make the the settlement document itself public until it has been approved by the court as an acceptable resolution to the case. Mark McCormick, spokesman for the ACLU of Kansas, said it “could be a couple of weeks at the minimum” before the court reviews the agreement.

David Smith, Shawnee Mission’s chief communications officer, said Monday he could not comment on any of the specific terms of the settlement at this point, including whether it addressed monetary liabilities the district may have incurred for the plaintiff’s legal fees.

Though it’s not clear at this point precisely what the district has tentatively agreed to do to rectify the issues brought forth in the case, ACLU of Kansas Legal Director and Interim Executive Director Lauren Bonds couched the development as a win for free speech rights.

“The settlement is a victory for students across the Shawnee Mission School District,” Bonds said in a statement. “We’re pleased about school district measures to ensure future students will not have their free speech rights violated at school.”

The district issued a brief statement on the agreement following the board’s vote, which was part of the consent agenda at Monday’s specially called meeting.

“The District will have additional comment once the agreement is approved by the court,” read the statement. “The Shawnee Mission School District strongly supports the rights of all students to free expression, and will continue to work with staff and students to ensure that those rights are respected and protected.”

Students claimed district staff made efforts to steer comments on gun violence, limit press coverage

SM West students at their National Walkout Day rally in 2018.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of two SM North and one Hocker Grove student in May 2018, alleged district staff worked to impose “content-based restrictions” on what students participating in protests against gun violence following the massacre in Parkland, Florida, could say during gatherings on school grounds.

In one instance, the plaintiffs alleged, a district official had stepped in and interrupted a student who was speaking at a protest gathering at Hocker Grove as soon as she mentioned gun violence specifically, telling her “that’s not what this is about.” In another instance, a SM North administrator confiscated the camera of a student journalist at an unauthorized gathering on school grounds.

Shawnee Mission had actively fought the suit, racking up more than $36,000 worth of legal charges over a period of months and filing a motion in federal court to have the case dismissed. But Chief United States District Judge Julie Robinson rejected the bulk of the district’s request in January, saying the case should move forward. A trial in the case was tentatively set for December.

With the approval of the settlement agreement, however, it appears the case won’t make it that far.