Scarborough school Superintendent Julie Kukenberger said Friday she had no intention of infringing on the First Amendment when she halted a student voter registration drive at Scarborough High School this week.
Kukenberger said she wanted to protect students who were feeling pressured to participate in an effort to unseat three school board members that is part of a wider community controversy. She said she now realizes that she could have taken steps to ensure that all students feel comfortable in school without asking Principal David Creech to “suspend” the registration drive Thursday afternoon.
In retrospect, Kukenberger said Friday, “I would not have used that word. That’s not what I intended.”
Kukenberger reconsidered her actions Friday after a public backlash led the ACLU of Maine and Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap to warn the superintendent against infringing on students’ free speech rights.
Kukenberger maintained, however, that she was acting in the best interests of all students after receiving several emails from parents of students who were upset about an increasingly negative political atmosphere at school.
When she called the high school Thursday around noon, the principal said he was unaware of the registration drive and any problems with it, she said. So she asked him to suspend it and schedule a meeting Friday morning to develop a plan to ensure that no students felt pressured to take part.
“We as school administrators have an ethical obligation to be cognizant of what’s going on around us and I’ve had conversations about this with the principal in the past,” Kukenberger said. “We also have an obligation to provide a safe and protected learning environment for all students.”
Kukenberger said she was unaware that the student voter registration drive was a one-day event when she sent an email about her concerns to the school community Thursday afternoon. No suspension of a voter registration drive was in place Friday afternoon, she said.
In a letter emailed to the school community Friday afternoon, Kukenberger and high school administrators praised the voter registration effort and said they plan to discuss it further with student organizers next week. They also urged parents to contact a teacher, counselor or school leader if a student experiences “challenges.”
“We are here to serve and support each and every student academically, socially and emotionally,” the letter says.
FREE SPEECH RIGHTS
The goal to protect the feelings of all students has limits, the ACLU and secretary of state said.
The ACLU of Maine sent a letter to Kukenberger on Friday reminding her that the First Amendment protects student voter registration efforts even if they’re driven by a controversial subject.
The letter notes that the First Amendment protects controversial speech on school grounds as long as it does not materially disrupt classwork.
“There is no exception to the First Amendment for speech that is controversial,” the letter says. “Students have a lot to say, as illustrated by recent student protests across the country, and their speech is protected.”
“Given the superintendent’s acknowledgment that voter registration drives would be valuable at Scarborough High School, we hope she will promptly rescind the current restrictions on such drives,” said Emma Bond, staff attorney with the ACLU of Maine.
Dunlap, the secretary of state, also sent Kukenberger a letter, saying that he had received complaints but has no jurisdiction over local affairs or elections.
“I would hasten caution, however, regarding interactions with citizens in the context of how they participate in the public discourse through voter registration, citizen petitions and voting,” he said.
Dunlap also said Kukenberger cannot stop students from discussing community issues in school, even if the subject is controversial, and even if some students feel pressured to participate or otherwise uncomfortable.
“We are only left to support the citizen to have their voice heard, however they choose,” Dunlap said. “This is normal discourse between citizens.”
In her statement emailed to the school community Thursday afternoon, Kukenberger said she had “received several complaints from parents that their children are feeling pressured, and have concerns that politics are being brought into the classroom, and that as a result, the culture and climate at the high school are not conducive to teaching and learning for all of our students.”
Kukenberger also noted that the district periodically collaborates with the town clerk to register students who are 18 and interested in registering to vote, but that had not happened in this case.
Other local school districts have held voter registration drives related to recent student protests against gun violence.
BROADER COMMUNITY DIVISION
The flap over student registration comes amid broader controversy in Scarborough schools, including Creech’s recent resignation, effective June 30, and an overwhelming vote of no-confidence in the superintendent by the high school faculty.
Monday is the deadline to turn in signatures for the school board recall petitions. A group of residents has formed a political action committee, Road to Renewal, that is trying to force a recall vote on school board Chairwoman Donna Beeley and members Cari Lyford and Jodi Shea. There are four other members.
Beeley defended Kukenberger in a statement released Friday afternoon, saying that what has been painted “as suppression of free speech is actually just the opposite.”
She said “some students at Scarborough High School were being pressured by staff and their peers to do things and take positions they were not comfortable with. In other words, they felt their rights were being interfered with.”
The superintendent “simply called a short pause,” she said, “(to) ensure that no one was being threatened or coerced.”
She encouraged students to register to vote if they’re 18 and to get involved in issues they care about regardless of their age.
The senior class ended its voter registration drive Thursday, when about 30 18-year-olds walked to the town hall next door, registered to vote and signed the recall petitions.
In a letter posted Friday on the Road to Renewal’s Facebook page, senior class officers emphasized that the registration drive was their doing and that “there were no faculty members involved in the process of planning this event.”
“All students are aware of the current events surrounding our school, as it has made a significant impact on our tight-knit community,” the letter continued. “We firmly believe that the only manner in which these issues regarding the school are discussed is through private conversations being had by the students themselves.”
While these private conversations “may make certain students feel uncomfortable,” the letter concluded, “it is no different than discussing other political issues that have strained our community, just as the last presidential elections had.”