Student among plaintiffs suing district in U.S. court


Student among plaintiffs suing district in U.S. court

Board policy bans political activity at New Berlin schools

By CORISSA JANSEN, Journal Sentinel

Thursday, January 22, 2004

New Berlin — As vice president of the junior class at Eisenhower High School, Alexis Krenitsky may be more inclined toward politics than other students. But the 17-year-old said it wasn’t any particular element of a district policy banning political activity from school grounds that disturbed her.

For Krenitsky it was more of a gut feeling that prompted her to sign on to a federal lawsuit against the New Berlin School District, School Board and Superintendent James Benfield, filed this week by the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin.

“I just felt like it was a violation of rights, and it just didn’t seem right,” Krenitsky said. “I have a right to speak my mind. . . . I think that it’s important that we stand up against it to stop it now, so that it doesn’t get taken any further later on.”

Krenitsky is the only student in a group of New Berlin residents named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the policy, which bans any programs involving candidates for office or political platforms from school grounds. The lawsuit seeks an injunction to prevent the policy from being enforced.

The School Board is to revisit the policy — a decision made before the lawsuit was filed Tuesday in federal court — on Monday night.

Benfield said Wednesday that he had not seen the lawsuit. However, based on opinions from the district’s legal counsel, the Quarles & Brady law firm, district officials believe the policy is not unconstitutional, an assertion by the ACLU in its lawsuit, Benfield said.

“The board adopted the policy last year and the board, at this time, as far as I know, still believes the policy’s in the best interest of the district,” Benfield said.

Benfield and board members are aware that “a number of citizens have expressed concern about the policy,” he said.

Wait and see, Benfield says

“I think all we can do is just wait and see what the board does on the 26th,” Benfield said, echoing comments made Tuesday by board President Jennifer Eitel.

Eitel said she’s open to revising the policy with fellow board members but would not support entirely rescinding it.

The district’s political activity policy was revised in June to ban activities such as candidate forums and political speeches from school property. Board members who supported the revisions said the changes were made to prevent extremist groups from using school facilities and to prevent what Eitel called “nasty” local politics from taking place at schools.

In the complaint, filed by David F. Loeffler of the Milwaukee law firm Krukowski & Costello, the policy switch “dramatically changed” traditional policies governing the use of district facilities.

The complaint said the policy permits community and student groups to use schools for a wide variety of activities, “but singles out for prohibition and penalty expression related to elections or political platforms.”

The suit went on to allege that the policy revisions were made by a majority of board members to diminish the ability of candidates for seats on the board to “reach the electorate with criticism of incumbent board members’ actions and policies.”

Alleging that the policy violates free speech and equal protection rights under the U.S. Constitution, Loeffler went on to say in the complaint that the policy has had the effect of “chilling the speech and associational rights of others.” The suit says that includes Home and School Associations that might hold candidate forums or other political activities in schools.

Plaintiffs in the suit include three former School Board members: William Moore, Joan Pray and Linda Richter. Other plaintiffs are Mary Fennig, Donna Walsh, Laurie Evans, Lynn Reed, Brian Reed, Henry Reed, Patrick Reed, Krenitsky and her mother, Loretta Krenitsky.

Loretta Krenitsky said she was prompted to join the lawsuit because she said the ban of political activity on school campuses is “a definite change of policy and tradition in the New Berlin School District.”

“I think it’s starting to deny us our free speech,” Loretta Krenitsky said. “It’s in a small venue in that it’s just happening in our School District, however, the magnification of limiting free speech and one’s ability to bring a political candidate of any sort into the School District just changes the whole idea of a public education.”


The School Board will meet at 7 Monday night to discuss the policy at its meeting in New Berlin City Hall, 3805 S. Casper Drive.

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