Student press groups warn Basehor-Linwood schools against memorial policy
The Basehor-Linwood school board on Monday set aside a proposed policy limiting memorials for deceased students or staff after two organizations warned the district that it could violate students’ free speech rights.
The policy, which would discourage the use of school property for memorial services and classify memorial pages in a student newspaper or yearbook as “inappropriate,” had appeared on Monday's school board agenda for approval. But during the meeting, Basehor-Linwood Superintendent David Howard said the board would wait to act on it while the school's attorney examines it.
Mark Johnson, a Kansas City attorney appearing on behalf of the Kansas University-based Kansas Scholastic Press Association, spoke against the policy at the meeting. He said a 1992 state law, the Kansas Student Publications Act, prohibits schools from controlling the content of student publications, and that it would be a violation of the First Amendment for the district to refuse the use of school grounds for certain activities based on their content.
“I believe the proposal, as it has been presently presented to you, violates the First Amendment,” said Johnson, who is also a lecturer for KU’s schools of journalism and law.
A national nonprofit group, the Student Press Law Center of Arlington, Va., also contacted the district last week.
Frank LoMonte, an attorney who serves as executive director of the SPLC, wrote Howard and the board members last week warning them that the limits on student publications set by the policy could land the district in a legal dispute in the future.
LoMonte said in a phone interview that he understood that the district’s intentions in planning ahead for possible tragedies were good. But decisions on how to address tragedy in student publications, he said, should be left up to the students who work on them, with the guidance of advisers.
“Everybody deals with tragedy in a different way,” LoMonte said, “and for some kids, talking about it publicly is part of the healing process.”
The death of a student can be a hugely significant event for a school community, he said, and a school newspaper would have a responsibility to mark that event.
“It is part of the learning experience for student journalists to deal with emotionally difficult and delicate subjects,” LoMonte said.
The SPLC earlier this month helped a student journalist at Johnson County Community College sue the school for allegedly charging too much for access to public records. But LoMonte said the organization rarely ventures into the courtroom, more often focusing on heading off legal problems involving student publications before they arise.
An intern for the SPLC, Nicole Hill, said she discovered the proposed Basehor-Linwood policy through a Sentinel story published in August.
The executive director of the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, Jeff Browne, said the state group heard about the policy through the SPLC. Browne said many school administrators in the state, through no fault of their own, are unaware that Kansas is one of a handful of states to grant a greater amount of freedom to student journalists.
Kristen Knoth, the journalism teacher at BLHS, said she didn't believe the policy would cause much conflict for her students who produce the yearbook and newspaper, but she said it was good for the district to look into the policy’s legal implications.
When he proposed the policy in August, Howard said it was meant to prepare the district to maintain a good educational environment in the event of a tragedy, while preventing the need to make policy decisions immediately after a death, when emotions may run high.
Howard said Wednesday that the district would await its attorney’s opinion before considering the policy again at next month's board meeting, noting that different lawyers might see the policy differently.
“There’s lots of legal opinions,” Howard said.
Also at Monday's school board meeting:
• BLHS assistant principal and athletics director Joe Keeler discussed a possible move to the Frontier League for BLHS sports teams.
• The board approved, 6-0, a policy dictating that all gifts to district schools will be made through the Basehor-Linwood Education Foundation. Board member Eric Dove was absent.
• The board approved, 6-0, a policy setting prices for the use of district facilities by outside groups. To see the proposed prices, see the document at left.
• Howard presented board president Dayna Miller with a Kansas Association of School Boards honor roll award.
• Howard discussed the possibility of the district opting out of the city of Basehor's Neighborhood Revitalization Program property tax rebates for new homes or businesses.
• The board discussed the possible construction of a second softball field at BLHS.
• Howard said the Education Foundation's annual golf tournament last week raised about $8,000 for scholarships and grants.
• The board approved, 6-0, the resignation of custodian Lucas Roberts.