Parent’s petition urges Shawnee Mission School District to keep livestreaming public comments

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As Shawnee Mission's board of education gears up to consider changes to its public comment policy, Kim Whitman, a district parent, is asking for community support on a petition against the policy. Whitman said the proposed policy would send the community the wrong message about transparency. File photo.

A parent-led petition is calling on the Shawnee Mission School District to not change its policy governing public comments at district school board meetings.

The SMSD board is on the verge of finalizing the policy change that would change, after giving the proposal an initial reading at last month’s board meeting.

The proposed policy change would keep a 30-minute public comment period before school board meetings, but rather than including it as part of the regular board meeting, the public comments portion would become its own separate meeting.

Why the proposed policy shift?

SMSD is considering changing the policy after YouTube removed the May 17 board meeting video on the grounds that it violated the streaming site’s community standards.

Specifically, YouTube said the violation related to spreading “medical misinformation,” apparently related to comments some parents made during that meeting about masks’ effectiveness at helping prevent the spread of COVID-19.

If the district were to violate YouTube’s community standards again, the video-sharing company could suspend the district’s account.

By not including the public comment period as part of the regular board meeting — and not livestreaming it — the district lessens its chances of potentially violating YouTube’s community standards.

Petition pushback

Kim Whitman, a Shawnee Mission parent, is asking the community to sign an online petition calling for the board to not make changes to its public comment period.

Whitman said she started the petition because she’s concerned that some Shawnee Mission voices will go unheard under the new proposal — and she knows others who share that concern.

“Over the past few years, the SMSD community has expressed the importance of having a voice, and they have made clear how much they value transparency,” Whitman said in an email to the Post. “Both items in the petition speak to these priorities.”

As of Monday, more than 270 people had signed the petition at Change.org, after it began with a 100-signature goal.

The petition states that the 30-minute time limit is a new addition to the policy, though the policy committee — in previous discussions — acknowledged the time limit was already being practiced.

With the 30-minute time limit included in the new policy language, Whitman said “the community could perceive they are being silenced, or that their voices are not valued.”

Whitman said the murkiness of whether or not public comments will be livestreamed under the new change is concerning — because if public comments are not live streamed, the only other way to know what concerned community members share during the meeting would be to attend in-person.

Without live streaming the public comment portion of the meeting, Whitman said “transparency will be compromised.”

Support for the change

District officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this story, but district leaders and some board members have expressed support for the proposed change as it has been debated over the past month or so.

At a June 14 board workshop, SM East-area board member Mary Sinclair called the public comments policy change a “pretty straightforward solution” to the problem of the district potentially having its YouTube access jeopardized.

She said had concerns about parents or others independent of the district saying false or misleading things on SMSD’s YouTube channel, which could lead to the district getting penalized.

“There is a very real phenomenon of people hijacking others’ platforms to give their message,” she said. “Public comment is not meant to be a back-and-forth where we can correct misinformation or call people out in the moment. It’s meant to give parents or others a stage to raise an issue.”

At-large board member Brad Stratton noted that even with public comments being separated out from the regular board meeting, patrons could still attend public comments and speak or could reach out to the district by other means, including email or on social media.

“Everyone has the right to come into and observe our meetings,” he said at the June 14 workshop. “It’s not our obligation to amplify and propagate someone else’s message, however.”

Shawnee Mission held a first reading of the new policy on June 28, and is anticipated to hold a second reading — with a formal consideration — at a later date.

The next board meeting will be held on July 26, but an agenda related to that meeting has yet to be publicly released.