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For Now, ACLU Won't Sue Shawnee Mission Schools Over Alleged Free Speech Violations

Lisa Rodriguez
KCUR 89.3
Kenny Southwick, interim superintendent for the Shawnee Mission School District, requested more time from the ACLU, which threatened to take legal action if the district did not address alleged free speech violations against students by Thursday.

Updated at 4:40 p.m. 

After threatening to sue the Shawnee Mission School District for allegedly keeping students from participating in April's nationwide walkouts to protest gun violence, the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas will not take legal action against district — at least for now.

In a letter delivered to Interim Superintendent Kenny Southwick last week, Lauren Bonds, the legal director for the ACLU of Kansas, wrote that students were allegedly "censored, silenced, and in some cases subjected to aggressive physical contact by administrators" while participating in or attempting to participate in local walkouts.

The letter threatened legal action if the district didn't take action to "rescind all discipline, retrain all employees on students' First Amendment rights, and communicate a proposed corrective action to each impacted student by 5 p.m. on Thursday, May 3."

The Shawnee Mission School District (SMSD) declined to comment Thursday but said in an email the issue would be discussed at a meeting May 7.

Bonds says the district sent a letter requesting an extension. 

"They made clear they feel this is a matter that needs to be redressed," she says. "There was an acknowledgement that things were handled improperly."

Bonds says parents have told her that the superintendent has reached out to them directly, but she says the district has not yet stated students' rights were violated, which is perhaps more important to her clients.

The complaints involve students at Shawnee Mission North, Northwest and East High Schools and Hocker Grove Middle School. Perhaps the most egregious complaint came against Hocker Grove Assistant Principal Alisha Gripp, who allegedly pushed a middle school student who mentioned school shootings during a speech, stating that "shootings" and "death" were off limits. 

Bonds says around a dozen parents and students have come forward since she wrote the letter with additional complaints, giving her reason to believe administrators' behavior across the district wasn't random.

"It seems like this was coordinated and that a lot of the improper actions we saw were at the advice and guidance of the district," she says.

This isn't the first time the district has come under scrutiny from the ACLU. After the 2016 election, the ACLU intervened when the district banned teachers and administrators from wearing safety pins. Then last year, they called out a district policy restricting patron complaints at public meetings. Most recently, they called for an independent investigation into racial discrimination complaints at Shawnee Mission South High School.

"Part of the reason this stuck out to us was because this is part of a broader pattern of conduct [in the district] we've witnessed and received complaints about," Bonds says. "We're hoping this case is an opportunity to address larger cultural issues that are going on there."

Andrea Tudhope is a reporter for KCUR 89.3. Email her at andreat@kcur.org, and follow her on Twitter @ tudhope.

Andrea Tudhope is an award-winning multimedia journalist based in Kansas City, Missouri. She is currently coordinating producer for America Amplified, a national public media community engagement initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 
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