Student journalists detail concerns with draft publications policy, superintendent says district won’t ‘muffle voices’

Annalissa Houser of SM Northwest’s student news publication The Passage was one of the student journalists to address the board Monday night.

A group of student journalists packed the front rows of the Shawnee Mission Board of Education meeting Monday as editors of student newspapers in the district expressed their concerns with draft policy language on student press rights that got a first reading last month.

Under the terms of a settlement agreement with the student plaintiffs who sued over alleged violation of the First Amendment rights, the district was required to update its student publications policy to affirm that student journalists have the right to cover events at their school, even if the subject matter is controversial. But draft language forwarded to the full board for consideration by the board’s policy committee last month seemed to some to pave the way to do just the opposite, leading to a wave of pushback from both the plaintiffs in the case as well as Shawnee Mission journalism students.

Following the concerns raised over the draft language, the board and administration encouraged the public to give their feedback on the policy language so that it could be updated before coming to the board for a second reading in late July.

The editors of three high school news publications addressed the board and administration members during public comment at Monday’s meeting, saying that language in the student publications policy draft presented last month posed a threat to their ability to effectively cover their schools.

Ali Harrison, an editor of the The Patriot at SM South, dug in on the verbiage in the draft policy that would give the district the right to “limit controversial subjects if the District/school is sponsoring the speech,” saying that it could lead to censorship of important topics.

She pointed to the work of a group of high school reporters in Pittsburg, whose investigation into the credentials of the school’s new principal led to her resignation, as an example of the importance of student press freedom.

“The Kansas Student Publications Act of 1992 protects student journalists and their right to report on what they feel is important, whether their administrators or district want them to or not,” Harrison said.

The Patriot staff published an editorial raising concerns about the draft language last month, saying that the “proposal would give the school and district the opportunity to restrict student publication, including the printing of controversial subjects – an important aspect of journalism in general.”

Annalissa Houser, an editor of SM Northwest’s student news publication, had published an opinion piece on the proposed policy following its placement on the school board’s agenda last month as well, saying that it did not meet the terms of the settlement agreement. Houser was one of the speakers at Monday’s meeting.

“To myself and many others, this seems to be a loosely made policy with plenty of room for personal bias to get in the way,” Houser said.

Ben Henschel, an editor at SM East’s student news publication The Harbinger, pointed to a story he had worked on looking into issues with the district’s special education department after families had complained about services for their students. He wondered whether similar kinds of reporting would be inhibited by the language in the draft proposal.

Members of the board and administration thanked the students for speaking, and said their input — and input from patrons and national student press experts — had been helpful in informing revisions to the language.

“Your comments matter,” said Superintendent Mike Fulton to the students. “And we’re taking all of the comments very seriously. I can assure you that we’re not going to do anything that’s going to muffle voices.”

The district incurred liability for legal costs totaling nearly $120,000 for work related to the First Amendment suit brought by the student plaintiffs.