Shawnee Mission board, administration encourage input on student publications policy

Grace Altenhofen, a plaintiff in the ACLU First Amendment lawsuit against the school district, told the board she had concerns with the proposed student publications policy update.

Following pushback from journalism students and teachers Monday, the Shawnee Mission Board of Education said it would review proposed updates to its student publications policy in the coming weeks and encouraged patrons and others to send in suggestions for appropriate wording.

The district was required to make updates to the policies as part of its settlement agreement with students who sued Shawnee Mission over what they categorized as violations of their First Amendment rights surrounding the National Student Walkout Day demonstrations in April 2018, when administrators told students they could not mention guns and gun violence and, in one instance, infringed on a student journalist’s attempt to cover a protest.

The agreement approved by a federal judge required, among other things, for the district to apologize to the students and to make policy changes clearly spelling out students’ rights.

However, the draft language brought forward for a first reading by the board of education’s policy committee raised red flags for the plaintiffs in the case, who said what the district had come up with raised the specter of more, not less, censorship.

Grace Altenhofen, who was a member of the SM North student newspaper staff at the time of the protests, was among the student plaintiffs in the case. She addressed the board in the weeks after the incidents to say the confiscation of a student journalists’ camera constituted a violation of the Kansas Student Publications Act. She told the board Monday that she only became a plaintiff after the district failed to address the concerns last spring. With the proposed policy language sent to the board for consideration, she said, the district appears to be ignoring the KSPA yet again.

“While some phrases within the policy drafts reflect what was agreed to in the settlement, other proposed phrases were never mentioned in the settlement agreement and are far overreaching, providing an easy pathway to further censorship on the part of the district,” Altenhofen said. “I believe the proposed policies, as written, will harm student journalists far more than it will help them.”

Kathy Habiger, the journalism adviser at Mill Valley High School and mother to a student on the SM West yearbook staff, spoke at the board meeting as well, saying that the district could be inviting additional negative publicity and legal action with the policies as drafted.

“Although the recent settlement between the district and the ACLU called for an update of school district policies concerning students’ right to assembly and speech, as well as clarifying the right for student journalists to cover events at their school, the proposed revision removes much of the protections guaranteed by the state law and replaces them with troublesome exceptions,” Habiger said. “Given that the proposed policy seems to invite further censorship to student publications, rather than clarify student journalists’ rights as protected by state law, it almost seems that with this policy, the district would be asking for another lawsuit against them and almost certainly increased negative attention and pressure from the media and other organizations.”

Superintendent Michael Fulton noted the concerns, and stressed that the first reading provided an opportunity for the administration and board to consider edits before a policy were to come forward for a final vote. He and members of the board encouraged patrons and other interested parties to send their suggestions to the administration for consideration.

Members of the administration and board pointed out that they were trying to develop a policy that addressed a number of possible scenarios — including the distribution of “underground” newspapers not sanctioned by the school or district. In 2016, an issue of “The Eastonian,” an underground newspaper distributed at SM East for decades, raised major concerns after it published a series highly derogatory comments about students.

Still, Fulton acknowledged that the draft language may not be the best for the situation, and encouraged people to send in feedback and suggestions.

“As some have expressed tonight, maybe we didn’t perfectly find the language,” he said. “That’s okay. Because we can keep working on that.

The board is set to take up a second reading on the policy at its July 22 meeting.