Pennsylvania Appellate Court Interprets "Schools" to Include Colleges and Universities Under The Juvenile Act


A Pennsylvania state appellate court recently extended the definition of "school" under the Juvenile Act1 to include colleges and universities. The implications could resonate beyond this particular case.

In re S.D.2 involved a student who was adjudicated delinquent based on the possession of child pornography. The adjudication occurred after the student had already graduated from high school, but before he started the fall semester at Temple University. Section 6341(b.1)(1) of the Act requires courts, "through the juvenile probation department," to provide certain information related to an adjudication of juvenile delinquency "to the building principal or his or her designee of any public, private, or parochial school in which the child is enrolled." The probation department intended to notify Temple of the adjudication under the Act, but the student objected. The S.D. case hinged on the interpretation of the word "school" in the Juvenile Act. In other words, the issue was whether Temple was a "school" under the Act that must be notified of S.D.'s juvenile adjudication.

Traditionally, the courts (and the legislature) have not included colleges and universities every time a statute mentions a "school," particularly where, as here, the statute also references "principals" and "the child" — concepts almost certainly geared toward K-12 institutions. But in S.D. the Superior Court stated that it was relying on the dictionary definition of "school" because the Act lacked clarity. The Court also relied on the Act's purpose, which specifically included protecting school personnel and other students from the dangers of a delinquent child. It would be strange, the court explained, to think that such protection should not be extended to those at colleges and universities.

Under S.D., colleges and universities that receive a notification of juvenile delinquency must determine what steps, if any, should be taken to protect the community. As the S.D. court explained, such steps could involve making special living arrangements for the delinquent student, or limiting Internet use. Counseling or other support programs may be offered to or required of the student. Of course, such determinations would be specific to the student, the underlying delinquency, and any risk posed by the delinquent student to other students.

Based on the limited facts of S.D., it is unknown whether a college or university would receive notice of a juvenile delinquency where the student has been adjudicated delinquent while still attending high school, but having already been accepted to a post-secondary program. Regardless, colleges and universities should take time now to ensure that they have adequate protocols in place to address a notice of juvenile delinquency. This includes ensuring that those who receive such a notice know whom to contact within their respective institutions. In the same vain, colleges and universities could require prospective students to disclose juvenile delinquencies on their applications among the other disclosures applicants make.

S.D. may have a broader impact on colleges and universities in the compliance arena. Though S.D. involved the Juvenile Act, if other courts similarly hold that "schools" now include colleges and universities, a whole host of regulations, arguably meant to address only elementary and secondary schools, could now apply to colleges and universities as well.

As of the date of this alert, the student in S.D. has not appealed to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Saul Ewing's Higher Education Practice will continue to follow this case along with any other developments that may affect colleges and universities.

1. 42 Pa.C.S. § 6341.

2. 2012 PA Super 185, — A.3d — (2012). A copy of the S.D. opinion is accessible here.

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