Mat-Su high school students sue school district alleging free speech violations

A student wearing colorful makeup holds a sign that says "Are you even listening?" during a walkout protest at Career Tech High School.
A student holds a sign during a walkout to protest recent school board decisions at Career Tech High School in Wasilla on Oct. 31, 2023 (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Two Mat-Su high school students are suing the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, which they say violated their civil rights after they and other students spoke out against recent district and Mat-Su School Board decisions.

The Northern Justice Project, a civil rights law firm, is representing Career Tech High School senior Ben Kolendo and Wasilla High School senior Quinlen Schachle in the lawsuit, filed in federal court Thursday.

The suit claims students were intimidated and their constitutional rights to free speech and assembly were violated when the Mat-Su School Board allegedly directed school administrators to question students about their testimony opposing School Board policy changes in September.

Kolendo is the Student Advisory Board Representative and Schachle is the President of the Alaska Association of Student Governments.

Kolendo has been at odds with the School Board since the rest of its members voted to all but remove his position in September.

“We believe this lawsuit isn’t just about me and Quin’s individual rights, but the rights of all current and future students in this district,” Kolendo said. “I think the goal is to set a precedent that students’ rights are protected, and we want to make sure that our district allows for an educational environment where diverse opinions are encouraged and those opinions are allowed to be expressed without efforts of censorship.”

A crowd of people wave yellow signs
Members of the audience wave yellow signs in support of student representative Ben Kolendo during a Mat-Su school board meeting on Sept. 6, 2023. (Tim Rockey / Alaska Public Media)

This is the second lawsuit in two weeks filed against the district claiming violation of First Amendment rights. A group of 12 Mat-Su students and parents sued the district last week over the removal of 56 books from school libraries for review by the Library Citizens Advisory Committee, at the direction of the School Board. The Northern Justice Project is representing the plaintiffs in both suits.

Kolendo and Schachle had spoken out against the School Board’s proposed changes to how the student representative could participate at a meeting in September. The board decided Kolendo’s participation would be limited to a brief report at the beginning of the meeting, after the student representative had previously been able to ask questions and participate in board discussions throughout the meeting.

Following other students’ testimony to the School Board in September, Schachle said school administrators pulled students out of class to ask if school staff had any involvement in organizing the protests, which would be in violation of the newly created Board Policy 4055, preventing staff from “activism” in the classroom.

Schachle said he was surprised to be questioned by administrators.

“They felt very unnecessary and very targeted as if they were trying to find a person guilty, who wasn’t guilty, like the person was already proven guilty before they even had the chance to be proven innocent,” Schachle said.

Kolendo consulted with his parents and a lawyer before answering questions from his principal, who said that he had been ordered to question Kolendo and other students by the School Board.

“Our district, when they do these investigations, it’s always guilty until proven innocent, which isn’t the way it should be,” Kolendo said. “Our principals were trying to prove the innocence of their staff, that’s what our principals were tasked with doing, and the innocence of their students. So originally it was really nerve wracking to get pulled aside by my principal.”

The suit claims that the investigations were retaliatory and unconstitutionally “chilled” the students’ right to free speech.

The suit also claims students’ First Amendment rights were violated when Kolendo was told by administrators that students were prohibited from “any political speech on District property at any time” during a meeting on Oct. 30 ahead of the first student-led walkout protest in October, and again when students were told they had to leave campus during walkout protests on Election Day in November.

Mat-Su School District Spokeswoman Jillian Morrissey said Thursday the district had not been served with the lawsuit and declined to comment.

a portrait of a man outside

Tim Rockey is the producer of Alaska News Nightly and covers education for Alaska Public Media. Reach him attrockey@alaskapublic.orgor 907-550-8487. Read more about Timhere

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