Edmonds student suspended for going off-script

EDMONDS — High school sophomore Pascal Cloutier was running for student government because he wanted students to have a say about what happens in the school.

Somewhere along the way, he decided to change his strategy. He swapped a school-approved speech for an entirely different one, prompting criticism, support and school suspension.

As a candidate for president of the Associated Student Body of Edmonds-Woodway High School, Pascal had to give a speech on the school’s television channel. He wrote a speech and, in accordance with school policy, had it approved by an adviser.

But when Pascal, 15, went on the air Feb. 7, he urged students not to vote in the elections because student government “has no real power” and its members are “just puppets of the teachers.”

Pascal knew that giving an unapproved speech would get him disqualified as a candidate. What he didn’t expect was getting suspended for a day and a half. He spent that time alone in a school conference room, punishment he called “solitary confinement.”

School officials told the boy’s parents that he was suspended for disrupting the education process, said Priya Sinha, Pascal’s mother. She is appealing his suspension with the Edmonds School District.

Sinha is an attorney. If she loses the first hearing, she plans to take her case before the school board and, if needed, to court.

The appeals process exists specifically to address such concerns, said John Dekker, assistant executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators.

School speeches need to conform to guidelines set by the schools because administrators must maintain a positive environment for students, he said. Student speech rights are important, too, and court cases have stemmed from concerns over those rights.

“We certainly honor the First Amendment, but we also know that with that freedom comes some responsibility,” he said.

School officials told Pascal’s parents that students were arguing after his speech and talking about it.

“None of that, to me, is disruption of the education process,” Sinha said. “Even if he had given the approved speech, he may have gotten the same reaction.”

School district spokeswoman DJ Jakala said she couldn’t comment on Pascal’s case due to privacy laws regarding students.

Pascal’s parents feel his “act of civil disobedience” didn’t warrant suspension.

He said he is glad it’s all over but doesn’t regret giving the speech.

“I think students should be able to actively participate in a democratic representative system,” he said. “My goal is not yet accomplished, but I certainly made my point.”

Pascal plays trombone in a school band, which he said is one of his favorite classes this year. He is learning a lot about the French Revolution and says Mahatma Gandhi influenced his thinking.

Katya Yefimova: 425-339-3452, kyefimova@heraldnet.com.

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