Records: Kansas school administrators justified profanity tickets under criminal law

KANSAS — Public records show that last fall, Maize school district officials were, at times, unsure of the grounds on which district police were issuing tickets for swearing.

Several students at Maize High School received $50 citations for swearing last semester. The tickets were given to students by Maize Unified School District police, who are fully-commissioned Kansas officers. Play, the student newsmagazine at Maize High School, first reported on the tickets in its December issue, raising questions about the legality of the tickets.

In Kansas, school police can legally enforce school rules, in addition to state statutes. Whether the tickets were legal citations or school administrative actions was not initially clear — a spokeswoman told the Student Press Law Center earlier this month that officers were enforcing statutes, but also called them campus citations.

Calvin Rider, an attorney for the school district, said the citations are administrative and not criminal. But that’s different from what administrators said last fall, public records show. In email exchanges between district officials, administrators cited disorderly conduct and the disturbing the peace laws as reasons for issuing the tickets.

On the tickets, officers wrote “dis conduct language” or “disorderly conduct language” into the “other” category of the ticket, as it wasn’t one of the predetermined offenses.

Since November, the district has fielded several questions about the tickets. A school board member, Wendi White, emailed Maize High Principal Chris Botts the morning of Nov. 13 to ask about the tickets. In his response, Botts said the legal basis for the tickets was “disorderly conduct.”

Minutes after Botts’ response, Superintendent Doug Powers emailed district police director Bill Riddle with a similar question, asking, “What authority do we have to issue tickets for swearing?”

“If the matter had been handled criminally the charge would have been ‘Disturb the peace’,” Riddle replied. “The notion is that a person is cited based on raising alarm in others based on vile and profane language.”

The disorderly conduct section of Kansas law, which falls under the article titled “Crimes against the public peace,” makes no mention of profanity or obscene language. Disorderly conduct includes “fighting words,” defined as “words that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite the listener to an immediate breach of the peace,” according to Kansas statute.

“If they’re claiming that the swearing qualifies as disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace, they’re just mistaken,” said Doug Bonney, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Kansas. “That’s not true. You can’t criminalize swearing in a general sense.”

Profanity tickets are given to students whose cursing causes a disruption or commotion, Rider said.

“They should probably be suspended, but I think the district’s saying let’s not, let’s try to work with it,” he said.

Five profanity tickets were issued last semester, according to public records — one more than a district spokeswoman originally told the SPLC.

Students who received citations all used the word “fuck,” but students were issued citations because of the disruption the word caused, and not because of the word itself, Rider said.

One student announced that a teacher was a “stupid effing black bitch,” he said. One student was cited because he was “going up and down the hall just screaming at the top of his lungs ‘eff you, eff you.’” In another instance, a student was playing loud and profane rap music. When a teacher “told him to turn it down, he turned it up, said ‘eff you’ and kept playing it,” Rider said.

If students can’t pay the $50 fine, alternatives such as clearing lunch trays or other duties are offered. Rider said he isn’t sure what happens if students refuse to pay or work off the ticket as he doesn’t know if it’s happened before, but “I think the punishment is unfortunately the poor parents pay it.”

Students also have the opportunity to challenge the tickets by filing a grievance with their principal, which they may appeal to the superintendent and the school board, Rider said.

Rider said that staff who cited disturbing the peace law or disorderly conduct may be “incorrect” or “misplaced.” But in the five citations last semester, if the district wanted to charge the students with disturbing the peace, “I think they could probably take this to the DA and the DA would probably charge these kids,” he said.

They don’t take this extra step “because we don’t want to make them criminals,” Rider said.

According to Kansas statute, students can be suspended or expelled for misdemeanors or felonies. Rider said for this reason, it’s safer to cite both school rules and state law when issuing the administrative ticket.

“Because then if you’ve got a criminal basis, it makes a justifiable standard for writing that ticket,” Rider said. “And then you’re just not taking it to the next step and you can show the parents if you don’t like the fine, we can kick them out.”

Rider said there isn’t a standard to determine who gets a ticket, but he plans to meet with administrators to try to work out a joint policy where the administrator looks at the situation and determines if a suspension is necessary. Right now, Rider isn’t sure if there’s a procedure to involve administrators in enforcement.

In a Nov. 19 email to Powers, Botts wrote that he “took it as an initiative started by our school police officers,” and that “often times if a kid receives a ticket, we don’t even know about it.”

“I don’t know if there’s any real procedure because what I think is happening right now, to be honest, is I think the kids that are written up just happen to be saying these things and doing these things and misbehaving in the presence of an officer,” Rider said.

Bonney said his concerns stem from the “excessive” use of police in schools.

According to Kansas statute, campus police officers are to enforce state law, county resolutions and city ordinances as well as the rules, policies and regulation of the school board, whether or not violations of these are a crime.

Bonney said using police to enforce school rules is “outrageous overkill.” Punishment for swearing should be able to be “handled easily” by administrators, he said.

“It should be a deal where the kid swears in school and the teacher calls the kid over and says, ‘Hey, you know, don’t do that,’” Bonney said.

Bonney said the practice raises serious concerns about the school-to-prison pipeline.

“One of our issues is overuse of police in schools, and so this is I think a pretty egregious example of this and leads to my concerns about the Kansas statute which seemingly empowers law enforcement officers to enforce routine school policies,” Bonney said. “The U.S. Department of Education just in the last few weeks issued guidance on scaling down the use of police in schools, and this seems to really fly in the face of that effort.”

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice released school discipline guidance in response to the high number of students who miss class because of suspensions and expulsions, according to a DOE press release.

“A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in the press release.

Because the police officers are employees of the school district, the school district is the boss, Rider said. If kids get into fights, or other criminal offenses, the officers can take them to juvenile court and press charges, but that isn’t what they do with profanity tickets, Rider said.

By Lydia Coutré, SPLC staff writer. Contact Coutré by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126.