School officials can have a difficult time determining the boundaries of their authority to discipline students for misconduct, especially when the misconduct occurs off school property or after school hours.

In general, Pennsylvania courts have upheld the discipline of students for essentially out-of-school behavior when there is a nexus between the misconduct and a “disruption of the educational process at some level.” For example, in J.S. v. Bethlehem Area School District, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the expulsion of a student for creating a threatening Web site aimed at his teacher because the student used school computers to show the Web site to other students, and the threat contained in the site clearly disrupted the teacher’s ability to conduct an orderly class.

In a more recent decision, the Commonwealth Court has provided clearer, more defined guidelines in the discipline of students for off-campus, after-school misconduct. In D.O.F. v. Lewisburg Area School District, one evening the student left home and went to a playground on school property where the police caught him smoking marijuana. As a result, the student was expelled from school. On appeal, the common pleas court reversed the student’s expulsion and found that while the misconduct did occur on school property, the student was not under school supervision at that time.

The District argued that it had the authority to discipline the student because he was on school property at the time of the misconduct and that the student made the plan to smoke marijuana during a concert held at the school earlier in the evening while he was under the school’s supervision. The court specifically rejected the District’s argument, ruling that because the act of smoking the marijuana occurred at a time outside of the school’s supervision, the District could not discipline the student. Moreover, the court found that the student’s in-school conduct did not establish a sufficient nexus between the incident on the playground and the Board’s supervisory authority.

When faced with an incident involving off-campus or after-school misconduct, school officials should determine whether the conduct somehow disrupted the school’s educational process. If so, then it is possible that the school may have the authority to discipline the student.
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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.