Commonwealth Court Concludes a Pencil is Not a "Weapon" in Student Expulsion Case

School Law Snapshot is written by Attorney Sean A. Fields, co-chair of the School Law Group.

The Big Picture...

In the case of S.A. v. Pittsburgh Public School District, the Commonwealth Court recently held that a pencil is not a "weapon" for the purpose of enforcing the district's student code of conduct.

In overturning the one year expulsion of a student, the court concluded:

  • A pencil is not remotely comparable to the items enumerated as a "weapon" in the district's student code of conduct;
  • The term weapon is a self-defined term in the district's code and the specific use of an object does not convert a non-weapon into a weapon; and
  • It can be inferred that the Pennsylvania Legislature intended to limit the definition of a "weapon" in the School Code by restricting the class of weapons requiring expulsion to items that bear a fair resemblance to the enumerated weapons listed in the statute.

The Close Up...

S.A., a 14-year-old student, was expelled following an incident that started with another student throwing a cologne bottle cap at her. After refusing to return the bottle cap to the student following numerous requests, S.A. stabbed the student in the neck multiple times with a sharpened pencil. In her defense, S.A. claimed that the other student touched her inappropriately during the confrontation. The district's single charge against the student was a violation of a school rule that was modeled on Section 1317.2 of the Pennsylvania School Code, which prohibits the possession of a weapon in school and requires a period of expulsion of no less than one year. The district's Code of Student Conduct provided that:

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...

The court rejected the district's argument that the use of the sharpened pencil to stab another student qualified it as an implement capable of inflicting serious bodily injury. Additionally, the court distinguished the case from the Picone decision, a case where the expulsion of a student who shot his girlfriend with an air pellet gun was upheld because the plastic pellets that were used were capable of causing serious bodily injury irrespective of the conduct of the individual using the pellet gun. The court further opined that when deciding whether an object is a weapon, the inquiry must focus on the object standing alone, and not the conduct of the person using the object.

It is important to note that while the court acknowledged the troubling nature of S.A.'s conduct and the fact the student could have been disciplined for assault, the district overreached by basing the expulsion on the weapons charge alone. Based on the S.A. case, districts should carefully consider whether the application of the definition of a weapon is being applied too broadly and consult with a qualified school attorney if necessary.

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