Pittsburgh Public Schools claimed a pencil was a weapon and expelled a student. The courts disagree.

An attorney for the expelled student said the case sends a message to districts across the commonwealth.

Tim Taylor / Flickr
Sarah Anne Hughes

A pencil is not a weapon inside a Pittsburgh public school.

That’s the crux of an Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas’ ruling that the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania upheld Monday. And according to Cheryl Kleiman, a Pittsburgh-based staff attorney for the Education Law Center, it’s a decision that sends a message to districts across the commonwealth: “The era of school districts’ unbridled discretion to use the weapons possession statute to discipline students for behaviors in schools is over,” she told The Incline today.

In June 2016, Pittsburgh Public Schools expelled a 14-year-old sophomore at Pittsburgh Obama — referred to as S.A. in court documents — for allegedly attacking another student with a pencil.

In expelling her, the school district argued that S.A. violated Rule No. 6 of Pittsburgh Public Schools’ code of student conduct: “WEAPONS AND DANGEROUS INSTRUMENTS.”

A student shall not possess, handle or transmit a weapon while on any school property, while at any school sponsored or approved activity or while walking or being transported in any manner to or from a school or school sponsored or approved activity. The term “weapon,” as used in this Code of Student Conduct shall include but shall not be limited to any knife, cutting instrument, cutting tool, explosive, mace, nunchaku, firearm, shotgun, rifle and any other tool, instrument or implement capable of inflicting serious bodily injury.

Under Pennsylvania’s Safe Schools Act, a student who brings a weapon on school grounds or to a school activity, or who travels to or from school with a weapon, must be expelled for at least a year unless the district’s superintendent steps in. That student is then required to disclose the expulsion to a new school district, which can place the student in an alternative program.

With Kleiman and the Education Law Center, S.A.’s father appealed the decision. Attorneys for S.A. requested and were granted a stay that allowed the girl to remain in school while the case played out.

“What [Commonwealth Court] recognized is that the weapons possession statute is different. It stands alone as opposed to all other school code rules governing student discipline and behavior in school,” Kleiman said. “It deprives a child of their right to education and it allows other school districts and charter schools and private schools to deny enrollment to their regular education programs. This is a big hammer.”

An Allegheny County judge ruled in favor of S.A. in August 2016. “That there was an intent for that scope to encompass a pencil within the definition of weapons proscribed in [Rule No. 6] is not plausible and, certainly, would not have afforded notice to S.A. that possession of a pencil placed her at risk of expulsion,” Judge Michael E. McCarthy wrote.

Pittsburgh Public Schools appealed the ruling to Commonwealth Court, which Monday ruled in S.A.’s favor. “Presumably, the District could have disciplined S.A. for assault pursuant to some other rule in the District’s Code of Student Conduct,” Judge Patricia A. McCullough wrote. “Here, however, the District made a reach too far when it sought to expel S.A. for possessing a ‘weapon’ under Rule #6.”

Ira Weiss, the attorney who represented Pittsburgh Public Schools, said they don’t plan to appeal. He said PPS is “disappointed with the result,” but “we respect the decision of the court.”

While he considers S.A.’s case over, he said PPS will have to review and revise “whatever processes we have to revise” moving forward.

Kleiman said Monday’s ruling “makes clear that the statute does not allow schools to turn ordinary objects into weapons.” She added that school districts across the state have used the code to expel students for the mandatory year “for a wide variety of objects.”

“This is a common practice that school districts do,” she said.

What happened on the day of the incident was not at the heart of the appeal, but versions presented by PPS and the girl’s attorneys differ.

According to court documents submitted by S.A.’s attorneys, another student groped S.A. in class then assaulted her:

S.A. was in a history class supervised by a substitute teacher when a male student threw a bottle cap at her. In an attempt to retrieve the bottle cap, another student [hereinafter ‘R.D.’] pulled his chair close to S.A., aggressively asked for the cap, and intentionally touched S.A.’s breast and buttocks. The substitute teacher took no action to protect S.A. from this unwanted touching. The altercation escalated when R.D. pushed S.A. against a cabinet and slammed her onto the classroom floor. During this incident, the pencil S.A. had been holding throughout the altercation scratched R.D.’s neck.

But in a letter from the Student Discipline Office of the Board of Public Education regarding S.A.’s case, Hearing Officer Rosalyn Guy-McCorkle claimed that S.A. “refused to return the cap.”

“According to the testimony presented from witness statements and testimony at the hearing, [R.D.] continued to request that [S.A.] return the cap,” the letter stated. “At some point [S.A.] warned [R.D.] if he persisted that she would ‘stab him with her pencil.’”

The findings claim that S.A. never requested help from the substitute teacher: “Instead [S.A.] carried out her threat and stabbed the student in the neck multiple times.”

Kleiman said that, as much as S.A.’s attorneys would challenge PPS’ characterization of facts, the judges ruled that schools districts must look only at the item itself when reading and applying this statute, not the circumstances of the incident. Essentially, schools “cannot convert an otherwise non-weapon into a weapon,” as Judge McCullough wrote.

S.A.’s case is over, but Kleiman said the Education Law Center will publicize the ruling so that districts across the state know the weapons possession statute can no longer be used to enact this “severe” punishment unfairly. Kleiman said school districts already have a number of tools in their toolboxes to discipline students, from removing them from school or using a best practice like restorative justice or peer mediation.

“When they want to impose this really strict, punitive mandatory statute on students, you have to look at the item itself,” she said.

It’s also useful for other parents and students who find themselves in this situation and want to challenge a decision. Part of the Education Law Center’s mission is to represent parents and students in suspension and expulsion matters, but as Kleiman pointed out, there are only so many groups that offer these free services.

“Unfortunately, there is way more need for legal help in school discipline matters than there are resources,” she said. “That’s especially true for parents in poverty.”

Going forward, Kleiman said the Education Law Center “would encourage the school districts to use [the] discretion” they already have “and to consider the circumstances and all sides of the story … and make, hopefully, an appropriate response to the situation that keeps students in school while the issue is resolved.”