As a general matter, Section 510 of the Pennsylvania School Code permits school districts to enforce reasonable rules and regulations regarding student conduct, but only during instances where students are under the supervision of school employees or on their way to and from school. Recent amendments to the School Code to combat bullying broke down that distinction by allowing a district to address and discipline off-campus bullying which is severe and has the effect of creating a threatening environment or disrupting either a student’s education or the district’s orderly operations. A recent decision of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County has taken the matter even further, and upheld a school district’s policy of excluding students from school activities when an off-school incident involving drugs or alcohol occurs.
In 2010, Mt. Lebanon School District’s Board adopted Policy JKF, which states that students will be excluded from all “school activities,” a term encompassing all extracurricular sports, clubs, performances and other school-sponsored activities, for a period of time following confirmation that a student was involved in an off-campus, non-school-related event involving the use, possession, sale or procurement of alcohol, drugs or drug paraphernalia. Confirmation of an event occurs either through the issuance of a citation, the admission of the student or acknowledgement of his or her parents. A first offense carries a 30-day activity suspension which can be lifted after the student undergoes a chemical evaluation and performs community service, while second offenses carry a mandatory 30-day suspension from activities, which is increased to 60 days for third and subsequent offenses.
A 12th grade Mt.Lebanon student violated the District’s policy for the second time by being cited for possession of drug paraphernalia in April, 2012. His activities exclusion covered the senior prom and commencement exercises. The student filed an injunction request with the Court of Common Pleas to stop the District from enforcing its policy on the basis that it excluded the statutory authority provided to school districts. After a hearing, Judge Judith L.A. Friedman denied the student’s request and upheld the District’s policy. Judge Friedman, as quoted in a newspaper article, praised the District’s efforts to combat student drug and alcohol use and distinguished between a student’s academic rights and extracurricular activity privileges: “They’re giving him his diploma. They’re letting him take his exams.” The family declined to file an appeal.
In light of this holding, it may be worthwhile for your district to consider adopting a similar policy to expand your district’s ability to encourage responsible student behavior. In considering whether to adopt a policy of this sort, anticipate that the policy will generate some controversy as representing an attempt to legislate the outside-of-school activities of your student population. Further, keep in mind that this is only a trial court decision, and there is no appellate court decision at present which adopts or approves Judge Friedman’s reasoning. Apart from those considerations, however, school districts may now possess a new and innovative way to encourage students to avoid drug and alcohol use.