COURTESY OF M.O. STEVENS - Sherwood High SchoolThe parents of a Sherwood High School student have filed a lawsuit against the district after they say their son was expelled for writing a “hit list.”

In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court on June 18, Michael and Julie McNeil, and their son — identified by the initials CLM — claim that the Sherwood School District overstepped its bounds when it expelled their son after he wrote a hit list of 23 names in a personal diary.

The lawsuit names as defendants the Sherwood School District, Superintendent Heather Cordie, Sherwood High Principal Ken Bell, Associate Principal Brian Bailey, the district’s chief academic officer Gary Bennett, and Peter Miller, a former SHS principal working as a hearings officer.

The McNeils are seeking $300,000 in damages because of the defendants' actions.

The district has not commented on the lawsuit. No court date has been set for the case.

What happened

According to the suit, CLM kept a personal journal in his bedroom. In May 2014, CLM — then a 16-year-old sophomore — allegedly wrote a list of 23 names under the notations “I am God,” “My Hit List,” and “All these people must die.”

According to the family, the list was a failed attempt at coping with a bad day at school. CLM wrote the entry out of frustration with classmates who were rude and unkind, they said.

CLM never meant to harm anyone, they said. The lawsuit claimed that CLM never returned to the list.

CLM eventually forgot all about it, the lawsuit claims, and began school that fall as a junior at Sherwood High.

In September, CLM's mother, Julie McNeil, found the journal while cleaning near CLM’s nightstand. Reading portions of it, she discovered the list.

Julie McNeil spoke to a therapist later that week about the journal entry, the lawsuit claims. The therapist, a mandatory reporter, alerted police.

Police began an investigation, but no charges were ever filed against the boy; they did, however, alert the Sherwood School District.

On Sept. 10, the district contacted the parents of the students who were named on the list and released a statement to the media, saying that an unnamed student had been removed from classes for writing a hit list.

CLM was later expelled. The district claimed that the threats of violence had caused a “substantial disruption to the school environment.”

No history of violence

CLM underwent a psychological evaluation and his doctor concluded that CLM never intended to act on the list, and said that the list — which was written at the end of the 2013-14 school year — was likely “a fantasy or symbolic method of acting out.”

Despite that report, the district refused to let CLM back into school. Unable to find another school, CLM was forced to take online classes, the lawsuit claims, with several hours of tutoring. CLM had no history of violence, according to the lawsuit. In fact, the child had “consistently demonstrated outstanding citizenship at school.”

“CLM has always been known by teachers and other students as easygoing and non-confrontational,” the lawsuit read. “CLM incurred no disciplinary actions at any time prior to September 2014.”

According to the lawsuit, CLM later acknowledged that writing the list was “a dumb thing to do.”

First Amendment protection?

CLM's parents claim the journal is a form of self-expression and is protected under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It did not constitute a threat to anyone, they said in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that the list, which lay forgotten in a desk drawer, could not have been a disruption in the classroom.

“The only communication about or disclosure of CLM’s personal journal Hit List to students, patrons and staff at SHS was the (Sherwood School District's) personnel …” according to the lawsuit. “Any disruption in the SHS environment in connection with CLM’s personal journal entries was exclusively attributable to (the Sherwood School District’s) conduct.”

The lawsuit also claims that the district had no authority to take action. The McNeils claim that the student handbook, which governs how students are to conduct themselves, is too vague.

The handbook says that a student can be expelled if the student’s actions have “the potential to disrupt or impact the safe and efficient operation of the school.”

That allows the district to act arbitrarily, the lawsuit claims, adding that it is overreaching and beyond the scope of what the district could legally do.

The McNeils are asking the district to remove the expulsion from the boy’s school records and to forbid the district from taking any other disciplinary action in the matter.

The parents are also asking for $300,000 — $200,000 for CLM’s “impeded educational progress and compensable injuries,” and $100,000 for Julie and Michael McNeil’s emotional suffering.

By Geoff Pursinger
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