Shawnee Mission School District apologizes, reviews censorship complaints
The Shawnee Mission School District has apologized after allegations of censorship surfaced during recent protests.
The district sent a letter to parents and students on Friday stating, “As a district, we apologize and commit to do right by our students. We value your voices and we value the lessons we can learn from your voices.”
The statement comes in the midst of complaints that various school administrators infringed on students’ freedom of speech during a national school walkout to protest gun violence April 20.
The Kansas City Star reports that issues arose at Shawnee Mission North High School and Hocker Grove Middle School, both which serve the Shawnee area.
At its meeting on April 23, SM North junior Grace Altenhofen provided school board members with details of the alleged censorship, describing how school board administrators took over what was supposed to be a student-led walkout, even going as far as making a script of what was allowed to be said during it.
After the administration-approved walkout occured, the student journalist told the board the walkout continued in front of the school because a group of students wanted an opportunity to speak their minds without having the filter of the administration.
During the unapproved walkout, student photographers were taking pictures of the event for the school’s yearbook and newspaper when an associate principal confiscated their cameras, saying he wasn’t going to allow them to cover the event because he didn’t approve of the subject matter, Altenhofen recounted.
She then cited a portion of the 1992 Kansas Student Publications Act where it states, “Material shall not be suppressed solely because it involves political or controversial subject matter."
The associate principal’s action of removing the cameras from the student journalists, because he disapproved of the subject matter, is a direct violation of the rights of student journalists in the state of Kansas, she pointed out.
“If an associate principal at our high school can break a law and get away with it, what kind of example does this set for us?” asked Altenhofen, a staff member of the SM North student newspaper, before thunderous applause and cheers erupted from the audience.
In response, Interim Superintendent Kenny Southwick told her he was going to take personal responsibility for what occurred.
“I will personally apologize for anything that was done to try and censor students,” he said. “I will be working very closely with administration to find out where the problem areas were and I hope we have an opportunity to learn from this situation.”
In the letter sent to parents and students on Friday, the district confirmed Southwick is committed to talking with students, parents and administrators to review what happened and figure out how to make sure such problems don’t happen again.
“Most of the student-led walkouts were successful events that served as an important lesson for our students and communities,” it stated. “With those successful lessons, came less successful lessons – lessons from which our staff and administration must learn from to be better prepared for the future.”
According to the Associated Press, The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas said it has received numerous complaints and it is investigating the incidents.