R.S. by R.S. v. Hempfield Area School District, 268 A.3d 521 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2021). (The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court explained that the Pennsylvania Public School Code requires a one-year expulsion for possession of a weapon on school grounds, and an expulsion on these grounds may not be overturned by a subsequent settlement agreement on appeal).
SUMMARY AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND
In February, 2020 the Board of School Directors for Greater Latrobe Area School District (“Latrobe”) held a disciplinary hearing and found student R.S. guilty of approximately 11 charges, including possession of a weapon on school grounds in violation of Latrobe’s weapon policies and Section 1317.2(a) of the Pennsylvania Public School Code. Latrobe’s adjudication resulted in the expulsion of R.S. based on a finding that he violated the weapons policy. Section 1317.2(a) states that a Pennsylvania School District “shall expel, for a period of not less than one year, any student who is determined to have brought onto or is in possession of a weapon on any school property.”
R.S. and his family appealed Latrobe’s decision to the Court of Common Pleas of Westmoreland County. Prior to a determination on appeal, the parties entered a settlement agreement under which Latrobe agreed to withdraw the weapons charge adjudicated by its Board of School Directors. R.S. and his family then moved into the Hempfield Area School District (“Hempfield”). Due to the weapons adjudication entered by Latrobe, Hempfield offered to enroll R.S. in an alternative education cyber-school program rather than in-person instruction.
On October 5, 2020, R.S. and his family filed a complaint with the Court of Common Pleas of Westmoreland County, seeking a declaratory judgment that R.S. was entitled to in-person instruction because the weapons violation had been withdrawn via the settlement agreement with Latrobe. At trial, the school solicitor testified about the development and execution of the settlement agreement, which withdrew the weapons violation from the disciplinary adjudication. He noted that during the negotiation of the settlement agreement, Latrobe was aware of case precedent holding that a pencil was not a weapon, and, because R.S. maintained in his appeal of the disciplinary adjudication that the item involved that led to the weapons charge was similar to a pencil, Latrobe agreed to drop the weapons violation in exchange for R.S. withdrawing the appeal of his expulsion. The solicitor explained, however, that none of the other charges or the term of R.S.’s expulsion was amended by the settlement agreement. He further insisted that Latrobe continued to take the position that the item was a weapon, but Latrobe, nonetheless, agreed to withdraw the weapons violation.
The Court of Common Pleas agreed with the family that, because the weapons charge had been withdrawn, Hempfield could not preclude R.S. from in-person, regular education instruction pursuant to Section 1317.2(a). Hempfield then appealed this decision to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court.
The Commonwealth Court reversed the decision of the trial court, explaining that under Section 1317.2(a) Latrobe was required to expel R.S. for at least one year after determining R.S. possessed a weapon on school property. The Commonwealth Court explained the expulsion period is mandatory under the Pennsylvania Public School Code and may not be reduced or withdrawn via a subsequent settlement agreement.
The School Code empowers a school district to provide for alternate education services if a transferring student is expelled for a weapons violation. Whenever an adjudication of a weapons violation has not been vacated or struck from the student records of the prior school district of residence, the school district into which that student relocates has the legal authority to enforce the expulsion regardless of any settlement agreement to resolve a pending appeal.