Often school officials must determine whether a statement or writing is a threat, and if so, what punishment is appropriate. Commonwealth Court will soon consider the difficult determination of whether a student poses a real danger to the school community.  

In Shelby L. Jones et al. v. Gateway School District, the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas reviewed the expulsion of an eighth grade female student.  The student had a handwritten list titled “People to Kill,” which included her classmates and teacher.  Upon learning that the student had the list, she was suspended, provided a Hearing and then was expelled by the Board. 

Common Pleas Judge Friedman granted the student’s appeal and returned her to the classroom.  The Judge noted that the student kept the list on her person, never showed it to anyone and never published it on the internet.  Further, the student did not threaten any of the individuals on the list, had no prior suspensions or history of disciplinary problems.  On this basis, the Judge concluded that no actual terroristic threats had been made.  The Judge further noted that in response to finding the note, the District did not lock down its schools or implement significant additional safety measures and the “threatened” children and teacher continued to come to school.  Judge Friedman concluded that the District did not regard the student as dangerous, and could not have reasonably believed the “Kill List” constituted a credible threat:  “The evidence of record was undisputed and was that the actions complained of – causing disruption in the school – were not those of Shelby, but rather, those of Gateway.”

The District filed an appeal from Judge Friedman’s ruling to the Commonwealth Court.  When decided, this case may provide some guidance to School Districts in designing and enforcing their codes of student conduct regarding threats made by students.  In a time when bomb threats seem all too frequent and School Districts are hesitant to be viewed as doing too little to prevent school violence, it is timely for a Pennsylvania appellate court to weigh in on how credible a threat must be before it can be met with expulsion.  We will update the status of this case in future editions of MB&M Education News.

Alfred Maiello

Alfred C. Maiello is the founding member of MBM and has represented area school districts as solicitor for 50 years. He counsels school districts and educational institutions on leading developments in school law and guiding them through their day-to-day and long-term challenges.