PALMER — Students and staff at two Mat-Su high schools say they were questioned by administrators as part of a district-level investigation into a student-led protest at a contentious early September school board meeting.
The protest was centered on a school board vote last month to restrict the ability of a sole student representative to participate in public meetings.
The investigation sought to reveal whether teachers had violated a Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District policy banning them from participating in activism at school or politically influencing students, district officials confirmed this week.
It involved more than two dozen students who described being individually questioned by school administrators, as well as at least three teachers, according to interviews with students and staff.
No inappropriate actions by staff were uncovered during the investigation, according to a statement provided by district spokesperson Jillian Morrissey.
The district statement said that members of the school board requested the inquiry, but Morrissey provided no additional information.
Students interviewed for this story said the investigation began a few days after a Sept. 6 school board meeting where the board voted 5-2 to dramatically limit the role of the board’s student representative.
About 10 students spoke in protest of the policy change, while dozens of others attended in protest. Dressed in yellow, students waved small, colorful “Stand for Students” signs taped to paint stirring sticks and lined up to testify against the proposal.
An estimated 30 students at both Wasilla High School and Mat-Su Career & Technical High School were pulled from class or called between periods by school administration staff on the days of Sept. 8 and 11, students and teachers said. They were asked whether any teacher directed or encouraged them to protest and whether instructional time or school supplies were used to create protest materials, such as signage.
At least three teachers who serve as student government advisers — two at Career & Tech and one at Wasilla — were also directly questioned about their influence and any school-funded support, students and staff said.
But protesting at the meeting was entirely the students’ idea, people interviewed for this story told the Daily News.
By questioning whether students were directed to protest by school staff, the board is suggesting students don’t think for themselves, said Quin Schachle, a Wasilla High School senior who is president of both his school’s student government and the districtwide Student Advisory Board’s executive team.
“It felt like that was them taking credit for what I had written and those that I sat down and spent an hour writing that speech,” Schachle said. “It felt really dehumanizing to not be able to have credit for everything that I’ve worked on here.”
A number of school board members did not respond to requests for comment including Ted Swanson and vice president Jubilee Underwood, who voted against the student representative changes; member Kathy McCollum, who voted for the change but said she wants to see more student voice participation; and school board president Tom Bergey.
The Mat-Su school board’s decision to limit the authority of its student representative is the subject of a resolution unanimously approved last weekend by students at the Alaska Association of Student Government fall conference in Fairbanks. The resolution affirms full student representation on school boards statewide.
‘You know you are fine, right?’
The school district’s investigation last month involved a school board policy involving political activities of employees first approved in 1995 and revised in June, officials said.
The investigation began after school board members “heard from constituents about the possible misuse of school resources and reported advocacy about controversial issues occurring by staff” to district administration, according to the statement emailed by Morrissey.
“Concerns like this are routinely investigated,” the district statement said. “Although we do not discuss the details of staff or student investigations, we can broadly report that the investigation showed that there was no significant misuse of school resources and that staff actions were appropriate.”
Teachers who said they were questioned included Barbara Jackson, a social studies teacher and student government adviser at Career & Tech; Kristin Shea, a Career & Tech social studies teacher who serves as teacher adviser to the district-wide Mat-Su’s Student Advisory Board executive members; and Karli Rauchenstein, who teaches social studies and advises the student government at Wasilla High School.
News of the questioning created a culture of fear among students at Career & Tech even though they had done nothing wrong, Jackson said this week. When a group of students learned they would be questioned individually, they appeared panicked, she said.
“I did see these looks like ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh,’” Jackson said. “And I was like, ‘Guys, you know you are fine, right? You don’t even worry about this for yourself.’”
The investigation was conducted by an assistant principal at Wasilla High School and Career & Tech principal Jason Ross, students and teachers said. Wasilla principal Jason Marvel was not in the building when the investigation was ordered by district staff, students and teachers said.
Both Ross and Marvel declined to comment, citing a district requirement that they refer media questions to the school district public affairs office.
Advice on advocacy
The school board’s current student representative is Ben Kolendo, a senior at Career & Tech High School.
Kolendo this week said the idea for the Sept. 6 student-led protest at the Mat-Su school board meeting initially came from the Career & Tech student government members, who are his friends and support him in his role on the school board.
Until September, the student representative — designated a “board member” by district policy — regularly sat on the dais with other members during meetings and was permitted to fully participate in all but executive sessions, to include questioning witnesses.
But after a May meeting when Kolendo challenged the school board’s selection process for members of a library book review panel, his seat was moved from the dais to the audience without explanation during the next board meeting in August. The measure to permanently alter the student representative’s involvement was approved the next month.
Most Alaska school boards, including Anchorage’s, allow a student adviser to sit on the dais and ask questions during meetings.
In Mat-Su, the student representative is elected by peers who sit on the district’s student advisory board, which is made up of high school and middle school students who are elected to or apply for the positions. All of the current executive members of that board attend either Wasilla or Career & Tech high schools.
Kolendo said that while Barbara Jackson, his school’s student government adviser, did not tell them to protest or direct students on what to say, she did offer general advice on advocacy best practices, which is part of her role as adviser. That included instruction that students must purchase protest supplies out of pocket, rather than use school supplies, he said.
“All she did during her work day was purely advisory, which is her job as a student government adviser,” Kolendo said.
Ultimately the students did create the signs at the school on a color printer regularly used by students for other noninstructional and politically charged flyers, such as student body Bible clubs or anti-abortion groups, he said.
Jackson said when the students told her they wanted to protest, she was careful to avoid presenting any opinion.
“They clearly had a position — and I did advise them. I did not shy away from that — that’s my job,” she said. “I would describe what I told them as basically Advocacy 101. It would be the same thing I would tell to any group who cared about anything.”
At Wasilla High School, student Schachle said, his peers were primarily worried about possible repercussions for their adviser, Karli Rauchenstein.
Rauchenstein said while she knew no rules had been broken, the questioning felt like a punishment for student political speech that goes against school board opinion.
“I know that I’m doing nothing wrong. I’m willing for anyone to talk to my students, and I’m willing to talk to anyone,” she said. “But the fact that it was done in such a manner feels like it doesn’t matter what my students or I say, that this is a permanent mark on me. And that seems wrong.”