PALMER — A new lawsuit filed by two Mat-Su high school seniors contends district officials repeatedly violated their free speech rights this fall, first by an investigation into a protest during a September school board meeting, and then by blocking all political statements on campus.
It is the second civil rights suit filed in November against the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District.
The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Anchorage on Thursday on behalf of two students: Quin Schachle, a senior at Wasilla High School who is president of both his school’s student government and the districtwide Student Advisory Board’s executive team; and Ben Kolendo, a senior at Mat-Su Career & Technical High School who since 2021 has served as the student representative for the district school board.
The student representative’s role on the board was dramatically curtailed this year after Kolendo challenged a number of board proposals, including the selection process for members of a panel tasked with reviewing challenged library books.
The pair is represented pro bono by the Anchorage-based Northern Justice Project. A similar lawsuit filed Nov. 17 by the Northern Justice Project and the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska on behalf of six Mat-Su students, including four unnamed minors, contends the district violated their constitutional rights by removing 56 books from library shelves early this year.
Schachle and Kolendo’s suit asks the court to declare that the district violated their right to free speech through a trio of actions between September and November, starting with a school board-directed investigation into whether teachers at Wasilla and Career & Tech violated a rule blocking faculty activism by helping students organize a Sept. 6 school board meeting protest.
The investigation, which involved questioning dozens of students and at least three teachers, found no wrongdoing, district officials said.
Schachle and Kolendo, who were both pulled from class and questioned by school staff as part of that investigation, state in the suit that they felt “intimidated knowing that the District was investigating them for speaking and expressing their viewpoints at a public meeting” and that the questioning was a form of retaliation meant to “chill” their right to free speech.
The suit contends their civil rights were further violated by a district ban on student political speech prompted by pair of student walkout protests held at high schools throughout Mat-Su and attended by hundreds of students Oct. 31 and on election day, Nov. 7.
In a meeting leading up to the protests, Justin Ainsworth, an assistant superintendent for the district, told Kolendo that any election-related student communication, including text messages, emailing, social media posts or messaging, is banned on school property, the suit states, and that the protests could not include “anything political.”
But such a directive violates the students’ First Amendment right to free speech because it “silenced any speech that might express disagreement with the district and its school board,” the suit states.
That right was further violated, the suit contends, when the district blocked students from protesting Nov. 7 on the grounds of schools used as polling places, instead ushering them off campus during the walkout.
Alaska state law prohibits campaign or election activities within 200 feet of a polling place.
But because students were told they could not participate in any political speech on campus at any time — not just within the 200-foot polling area zone on election day — forcing them off campus violated their rights, said Savannah Fletcher, a spokeswoman for the Northern Justice Project.
“So much of campus is more than 200 feet of the polling place — this was far more expansive than was necessary,” she said.
District officials had not yet been served the complaint, Jillian Morrissey, a district spokeswoman, said in an email Thursday. “Once the District receives service of the complaint, it will review the matter, file a timely answer, and provide comment as determined prudent.”
Kolendo and Schachle said they brought the suit because they believe the school board and district should be held accountable for actions they say were illegal.
”They were wrong with what they did and it was against the law — not just that it was morally wrong, but it was against the law,” Schachle said. “Our elected officials need to be held accountable when they misuse their power.”
Kolendo, who turned 18 in September, said he believes it is important to take a stand on behalf of other students who are not legally able to file a suit because they are minors.
“I hear from a lot of my friends that they are happy that a lot of this is happening because they can’t be involved in a lawsuit, but we can,” he said.