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Commonwealth Court Affirms Lower Court Decision: A Pencil is Not a Weapon

May 2, 2017 – Commonwealth Court issued a decision in S.A. v. Pittsburgh Public Schools yesterday that affirms the decision of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas that a pencil is not a weapon within the definition of the School Code or the Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Code of Student Conduct.  The Court agreed with the Education Law Center’s attorneys who argued that Pennsylvania law limits the scope of the definition to objects that are similar or comparable to the expressly-listed weapons, including guns and knives.

Two students were involved in an altercation in school. The 10th grade girl was touched sexually and the boy was scraped with a pencil.  The School District expelled her for a full year under the mandatory, “zero tolerance” weapons possession law.  Pittsburgh, like Districts across the state, has been using this law to expel students for a mandatory full year for possession of a wide variety of objects, asserting that if the object was “capable of inflicting serious bodily injury” it is a weapon. The Commonwealth Court disagreed. The Court concluded that a weapon is “self-defined” by its inherent capabilities and that the manner in which a student uses an object cannot convert an otherwise non-weapon, like a pencil, into a weapon.

Cheryl Kleiman, Education Law Center staff attorney and co-counsel for S.A., stated, “This case affirms the limits of the weapons possession statute.” Attorney Kleiman noted, “This decision leaves schools to use any one of multiple other legal strategies to respond to student misbehaviors that don’t involve weapons. “

This case is particularly poignant, given the national, state and Pittsburgh data that reflects the weapons possession statute is disproportionately used to expel black and brown students.  And yet there is no evidence that these differences are due to different types or rates of behavior than their white peers.

Nancy A. Hubley, Pittsburgh Director of the Education Law Center and co-counsel for S.A., added, “The era of school district’s unbridled discretion to use the weapons possession statute to discipline students for misbehavior- unrelated to the possession of a weapon—is over.”  She urged School Districts across Pennsylvania to see this case as an opportunity to evaluate their disciplinary responses to ensure they are consistent with this decision, but more importantly, are positive, preventative, developmentally appropriate and ensure racial, gender and disability equity.

As a result of this case, the Pittsburgh Public Schools, and other Districts across the state, will be required to revise and amend their Codes of Conduct to ensure that policies and practices are in place to align with the Court’s ruling.

Click here to download the Court’s decision.

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The Education Law Center-PA (“ELC”) is a non-profit, legal advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all children in Pennsylvania have access to a quality public education. Through legal representation, impact litigation, trainings, and policy advocacy, ELC advances the rights of vulnerable children, including children living in poverty, children of color, children in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, children with disabilities, English language learners, LGBTQ students, and children experiencing homelessness. For more information visit http://www.elc-pa.org/ or follow on Twitter @edlawcenterpa.

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