Student sues Everett schools over his on-campus proselytizing

EVERETT — A student at Cascade High School is suing the Everett School District in federal court for violating his constitutional free-speech rights.

The student, identified in the lawsuit as Michael Leal, has handed out religious pamphlets and preached on school grounds at various times since September. He has been warned and suspended at least twice.

Leal’s activities are protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution, the suit says, and he is seeking restraining orders and preliminary and permanent injunctions against the school district barring it from enforcing policies used to discipline him.

Leal is also seeking to have the suspensions removed from his record and compensation for attorney fees and unspecified damages.

The suit also names as defendants Superintendent Gary Cohn, Cascade High School principal Cathy Woods and Cascade assistant principals Robert Aguilar and Laura Phillips.

The lawsuit, which was filed on Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Seattle, does not state if he has further disciplined.

Everett Public Schools spokeswoman Mary Waggoner said she could not comment on Leal’s identity, his actions in school or the school’s discipline, citing student privacy laws. She could confirm that Leal is still enrolled at Cascade High.

A call to Leal’s attorney was not immediately returned Friday.

According to the suit, Leal was suspended for violating district policies 3222 and 3222P, which state that students who distribute materials they write or produce themselves should not disrupt school activities or interfere with operations.

Students who violate those policies will be disciplined, including with suspension or expulsion.

The policy also states that students may distribute material before or after school at the entrances of school buildings and that they may ask permission from school administrators to distribute material at other times.

The policy does not mention preaching or other religious expression, and it doesn’t address material written or produced by outside groups. The suit doesn’t specify who made the pamphlet Leal was distributing, which is titled, “How to Know God.”

“Our policies are neutral on the topic of a student discourse,” Waggoner said. “They do detail when student discourse or actions are not allowed,” but they do not address the specific content of student speech.

The suit states that Leal either handed out pamphlets or preached openly several times starting Sept. 3. On most occasions, he did so during lunch near the cafeteria but also at an after-school volleyball game and at the annual “Car Bash” fundraiser for the school’s Associated Student Body.

At the Car Bash, a school-sponsored event on school property and attended by faculty and administrators, Leal used a bullhorn while he was preaching, then ran from administrators when they approached him, one witness said. He continued to preach.

“The staff was trying to talk to him, and he was running away and taunting them,” said Gretchen Weiss-Elliot, who was at the event with her two children and a Moroccan exchange student, who is Muslim.

“He had a bullhorn and was yelling, ‘Praise the Lord!’ and ‘You’re going to go to hell!’ Nobody could not hear what he was saying,” Weiss-Elliot said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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