In settlement agreement, Shawnee Mission acknowledges it steered students away from mentioning gun control

Former SM North associate principal Brock Wenciker speaking with student protesters April 20. He removed cameras from student journalists trying to document the unauthorized gathering.

A copy of the settlement agreement signed by Shawnee Mission School District officials and the plaintiffs in the First Amendment lawsuit organized by the ACLU of Kansas over 2018’s National School Walkout Day demonstrations shows that district officials worked to keep students from discussing “political controversies” involving gun control.

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

The parties announced they had reached a settlement agreement in the case earlier this month, but did not release the terms at the time, saying the settlement needed to be approved by a federal judge before it could be made public. However, a draft copy of the agreement signed by both parties has since been posted on the federal court records system.

In the agreement, Shawnee Mission agrees to, “at its own expense, require all administrators to attend a First Amendment training program,” and that it adopt a policy for non-school sponsored events that “prohibits administrators from redirecting content…out of a desire to avoid controversy” unless there’s a reasonable expectation that the event would cause substantial disruption.

Moreover, the district must offer an apology to the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs will also receive a payment of $1 each in nominal damages, and the district must pay $40,000 in the plaintiffs’ attorney fees. That’s in addition to the tens of thousands of dollars the district has spent on its own lawyers in efforts to defend the suit.

The ACLU of Kansas said neither it nor the plaintiffs can comment on the settlement until it is approved by the judge.

The agreement says both parties acknowledge a set of facts that include:

  • “SMSD administrators, in advance of the protests, developed a coordinated, multi-site plan to adjust the focus of the planned student protests so that the protests would generically emphasize ‘school safety’ and honoring student shooting victims, and would avoid political controversies including gun reform”
  • “To protest SMSD’s imposition of restrictions on the contents of student speeches at Shawnee Mission North, students held an on-campus protest following the scheduled protest, during which a school administrator confiscated cameras from two students, including a student journalist”
  • “Plaintiffs believe that the demonstration at Hocker Grove Middle School was cut short when students declined to follow the subject-matter conditions imposed by SMSD and when they stated that the protests were really about gun violence, not school safety…The District contends that the demonstration was actually ended in the interest of maintaining order and safety of both students and staff.”

The agreement was signed by Board of Education President Brad Stratton and Secretary Terry Wintering on March 13.

Southwick initially characterized claims of censorship as ‘misrepresentation of the day’s events!’

Kenny Southwick.

In the hours following the demonstrations, students and parents contacted the media to raise concerns about what they saw as efforts to censor student speech and inhibit student journalists from documenting an unauthorized gathering on the grounds of SM North.

An email request sent by the Shawnee Mission Post the morning after the protests asked the district to comment on reports that administrators had told students they couldn’t include mentions of gun violence in their speeches and had cut the demonstration at Hocker Grove short.

Records obtained through a Kansas Open Records Act request show that Interim Superintendent Kenny Southwick was frustrated by our request for information and felt that the accounts provided to the media by students and parents amounted to an “attack” and that it “seems to be another misrepresentation of the day’s events!”

But the settlement agreement — reached after a lengthy period of legal discovery — acknowledges that the main concern raised by students and parents at that time was in fact true: The district engaged in a coordinated effort to keep students from mentioning gun violence and gun control as part of the demonstrations.

Days after the walkouts, Southwick did make brief comments on the situation, saying that he was “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.”

But Southwick’s slow response in taking more substantial action to acknowledge the First Amendment issues raised by the ACLU eventually led the organization to move toward the lawsuit. With its agreement to pay the plaintiffs’ attorney fees, district will end up having spent around $100,000 on legal costs associated with the suit once the settlement agreement is approved.