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S.A. v. Pittsburgh Public School District

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

May 1, 2017

S.A., a minor, by her father H.O.
v.
Pittsburgh Public School District, Appellant

          Argued: April 4, 2017

          BEFORE: HONORABLE P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge, HONORABLE PATRICIA A. McCULLOUGH, Judge, HONORABLE MICHAEL H. WOJCIK, Judge.

          OPINION

          PATRICIA A. McCULLOUGH, Judge.

         Pittsburgh Public School District (District) appeals from the August 29, 2016 order of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County (trial court) granting the appeal of S.A. and reversing the decision of the Board of Directors for the District (Board) to expel her from school for a period of one year. The discrete issue presented on appeal is whether a sharpened pencil constitutes a "weapon" as that term is defined by Rule #6 of the District's Code of Student Conduct (Rule #6). We conclude that it does not and affirm. The basis for our decision is that a pencil is not remotely comparable to the items expressly enumerated as a "weapon" in Rule #6, namely a "knife, cutting instrument, cutting tool, explosive, mace, nunchaku, firearm, shotgun, [or] rifle, "[1] and therefore does not fit within the prohibitory class of objects.

         Facts/Procedural History

         At the time of the incident in question, S.A. was a 14-year-old student in the 10th grade at Barack Obama International Academy in Pittsburgh. On May 9, 2016, S.A. was sitting in class when a student threw a cap to a cologne bottle at her, and S.A. retrieved the cap from the floor. The student who threw the cap was not the owner of the cologne bottle. The student who owned the cologne bottle approached S.A. and attempted to retrieve the cap, but S.A. refused to return it. After the student repeated his requests that the cap be returned, S.A. stated that if he continued his requests, she would stab him with her pencil. Thereafter, S.A. stabbed the student multiple times in the neck with a sharpened pencil. The victim sustained injures to the side and back of his neck, was treated by the school nurse (apparently with gauze pad coverings), and left school for the day. The nurse stated that the injuries could have been much worse if the pencil point had punctured one of the student's arteries. (R.R. at 34a, 42a, 63a, 72a-73a 138a-40a.)

         The School District charged S.A. with violating Rule #6, which is modeled after and required by subsections 1317.2(a), (b), and (g) of the Public School Code of 1949 (School Code).[2] In pertinent part, Rule #6 provides:

6. 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 . . . .

(R.R. at 95a.)[3] Rule #6 further states that a student who violates it will be expelled for one year and vests the Superintendent with discretion to recommend a less severe discipline on a case-by-case basis. Id.

         Following an informal hearing held on May 17, 2016, the District sent S.A. and her parent a notice of determination letter informing them that a formal disciplinary hearing would be scheduled. The Board subsequently appointed a hearing officer who convened a hearing on May 26, 2016.

         At the hearing, the District presented evidence that the hearing officer found established the facts set forth above. In turn, S.A. claimed that she was instigated by the student attempting to retrieve the cap and that he touched her breasts and buttocks during a scuffle. (See R.R. at 127a.) In the course of the hearing, a mechanical error occurred and caused the recording device to stop recording and a complete transcript of the hearing is not available.[4]

         On June 3, 2016, after considering the evidence, the hearing examiner issued a recommendation, concluding that S.A. violated Rule #6 and expelling her for a period of one year. At a meeting on June 22, 2016, the Board voted to expel S.A. for one year and rejected her request for discipline that was less severe. S.A. then filed an appeal to the trial court.

         In addressing the merits of S.A.'s appeal, the trial court did not receive any additional evidence. By opinion and order dated August 29, 2016, the trial court reversed the Board, concluding that S.A. did not violate Rule #6. The trial court reasoned:

Inasmuch as the sole basis on which the District has proceeded is that of possession of a "weapon" . . . the Court is constrained to agree with counsel for S.A. that the District, rather than responding to the actual misbehavior, expelled the student for the possession of a weapon. Counsel for S.A. urges that . . . the principle of ejusdem generis ["of the same kind or class"] would preclude the result urged by the District. That principle states that an ambiguous word should be given a precise meaning that is consistent with the words around it. In this matter, the pertinent rule of conduct prohibits possession of a weapon and, by way of further precision, explains that the term weapon includes "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."
Of course, an individual might deliberately utilize any object as an instrument of harm. Nonetheless, the scope of the rule cited by the District cannot reasonably be construed any more broadly than as a prohibition of possession by a student of weapons that are of the same kind as set forth in the list stated in the District's rule. In fact, because that rule is careful to list not merely "any knife" but also cutting instruments and cutting tools and not merely any "firearm, " but also shotguns and rifles, it is apparent that the drafters of the rule were aware of the method by which to ensure a broadened scope of the prohibition of weapons. That there was an intent for that scope to encompass a pencil within the definition of weapons proscribed in [Rule #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.

(Trial court op. at 5.) This appeal ensued.[5]

         Arguments on Appeal

         Before this Court, the District argues that the trial court misapplied the language of Rule #6 to the facts of this case. According to the District, a sharpened pencil, when used to stab and injure another student in the neck, qualifies as an implement capable of inflicting serious bodily injury. The District further contends that Rule #6 is not vague and that S.A. had sufficient notice that her conduct violated the rule.

         In response, S.A. cites Picone v. Bangor Area School District, 936 A.2d 556 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2007), and asserts that Rule #6 governs the possession of certain objects and that neither intent nor the manner in which the object is used is relevant. S.A. also emphasizes the doctrine of ejusdem generis, pointing out that a pencil is not ...


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