When Decisions Matter.

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Is the Pen(cil) Still Mightier than the Sword?

Last week, the Commonwealth Court ruled that a pencil, even a sharpened one, is not a “weapon” under the Public School Code.  The case, S.A. v. Pittsburgh Public School District, involved a student who was expelled by a school district for one year after she stabbed another student multiple times in the neck with a sharpened pencil.  The district’s Board of School Directors found her to be in violation of Rule 6 of its Code of Student Conduct (“Rule 6”).  Rule 6 was modeled after and contains nearly identical language as Section 13-1317.2 of the Public School Code, which is the only “mandatory” penalty for disciplinary offenses in the Public School Code.  Rule 6 prohibited, in part, a student from possessing, handling, or transmitting a weapon on school property and states that:

“[a] weapon . . . shall not be limited to any knife, cutting instrument, cutting tool, explosive, mace, nunchaku, firearm, shotgun, rifle and other tool, instrument or implement capable of inflicting serious bodily injury.”

The student appealed, and the Court of Common Pleas reversed the Board’s decision, finding that, regardless of one’s intent, a sharpened pencil is not a weapon within the parameters of Rule 6 and, consequently, Section 1317.2.  The District appealed the decision to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court.

The Commonwealth Court agreed with the lower court’s decision.  In analyzing whether an object qualifies as a weapon under the Public School Code, the Court held that the focus must be on the “inherent operational capabilities” of the object, that is “what the object is intended to do in the practical and functional sense.”  External factors, such as how the object was used or the severity of the injury, should not be taken into consideration.  Therefore, it is the object itself, not the manner in which a person uses it, that defines whether an object is a weapon.  The court explained that a ruling to the contrary could create a situation where a room full of students preparing to take the PSSAs would be subject to expulsion for possessing a weapon since nearly all of them would be in possession of a sharpened pencil.

An important take away from the case is that the court stated it would have been proper for the district to discipline the student for assault in violation of its Code of Student Conduct.  However, the district went too far when it stretched the definition of a weapon to include a sharpened pencil in a policy based upon the explicit language of Section 1317.2.  Therefore, when faced with a similar situation, districts can still discipline a student, but they should do so based on a student’s actions, the nature of the threat, and how the action violates other provisions of their Code of Student Conduct.  In light of this recent decision, districts should not discipline a student for being in possession of a “weapon” when the object’s practical and functional use is not intended to operate as a weapon.

If you need any help reviewing your Code of Student Conduct, assisting with student disciplinary matters, or creating an appropriate list of disciplinary charges, please contact any member of our School Law Group.

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