49 years ago the Supreme Court decided that students maintained their First Amendment rights upon entering the school building in the monumental court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. Yet, the Shawnee Mission School District (SMSD) infringed on freedom of the press just this year.
Earlier this year students from across the country participated in walkouts coinciding with the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre. But the protests took on a different meaning in the wake of the tragic Parkland school shooting. Protesters planned to spend 17 minutes out of class, a minute for each victim that passed away in Parkland. At SMSD schools, students that organized these walkouts had to give a description of how the walkout would occur, and were instructed by administration not to mention key terms like “gun violence,” “gun reform” or “school shootings.”
“This was very clearly about a certain type of violence that happens in schools,” ACLU of Kansas legal director Lauren Bonds said. “It’s not about other types of legitimate safety issues that happen in schools, this was about school shootings. So, to try to censor students and not allow them to talk about shootings, gun reform and political issues was really the problem.”
The students that organized the events at SMN agreed to not talk about gun violence for the original 17 minutes. After that time passed, more than 100 students continued to protest, deciding to talk about the actual issue at hand. The students then brought up the subject of gun violence and reform. When this happened administrators let the students continue their protest, but didn’t let a student journalist continue to photograph the event. Assistant principal Brock Wenciker then confiscated the student’s camera during the event, claiming that since it was school property he could take it. He later returned the camera to the student after school had ended.
At Hocker Grove, students didn’t even get to protest for the full scheduled 17 minutes before assistant principal Alisha Gripp abruptly ended the event after multiple students spoke about, or planned on speaking about, gun violence. After students refused to return to class when they were told, Gripp proceeded to direct and push students towards the doors. Multiple students received suspensions and detentions for being “disruptive.”
Nearly 50 years after the Supreme Court ruled students keep their First Amendment rights in school, this issue is still occurring. The district not only tried to prevent the students’ attempt at civil disobedience by making organizers write out their protest schedule, but denied the students free speech and free press rights.
SMSD chief communications officer David Smith said that “students have the same rights as adults do.” If the district really feels this way then why don’t they admit that what they did was wrong? They instead decided to say that the district was within its rights at the events.
Moving forward, SMSD needs to create a plan of action to prevent unconstitutional actions like the ones that occurred April 20.
“There needs to be a very clear policy that states that political speech cannot be censored because it is controversial,” Bonds said. “I think there also needs to be training that very clearly articulates to administrators and staff what students’ rights are. As problematic as some of the administrators’ actions were on the day of the walkout, you can’t expect them to know how to handle some of these situations without proper training or advice.”
As students, journalists and American citizens, SMSD publications can’t stand by and allow this to happen.