Today Sharee* is a 12th grade student in high school, excited about graduating soon. She is thriving in her classes, participating in extracurricular activities, and preparing for college. But earlier in high school, things did not look so bright. Sharee was a high performing student, yet no one had noticed a steady decline in her grades and attendance. She lacked critical supports to meet her English language and academic needs and was enduring unaddressed sexual harassment from her classmates. Although Sharee reported this to the administration, the harassment continued, with no intervention from her school's leaders - making school an unsafe place for her.
Sharee continued to be harassed in school, and one day another student inappropriately touched her. Frustrated and feeling like she had nowhere to turn, Sharee got into an altercation with the other student and used her pencil
to defend herself. Under "zero-tolerance" policies, the school expelled Sharee for a full year, arguing that she possessed a weapon - the pencil.
Knowing that the Education Law Center (ELC) is the only legal advocacy organization in Pennsylvania that is
dedicated to protecting students' access to quality public education, a community advocate working with Sharee's family contacted ELC. ELC represented Sharee at the expulsion hearing and then took action to
ensure that she was back in school and keeping up with her studies
while we appealed the expulsion. After winning in the Court of Common Pleas, we argued the case in Commonwealth Court.
In May 2017, the Court issued a unanimous ruling in Sharee's favor:
"[A] pencil is not a weapon."
The Court affirmed ELC's position that ordinary objects cannot be used as a basis to expel students under this zero-tolerance policy.
"If this Court were to construe 'weapon' to include the mere possession of a
pencil, then a classroom full of students taking a multiple-choice exam would
all be in violation of [the school code] and, eventually, there would be no
students in attendance at the school."
- Judge McCullough in
S.A. v. Pittsburgh Public School District
By helping Sharee,
we have established new case law that will protect students across Pennsylvania
from being pushed out of the classroom and denied their right to an education.
This is a significant victory, not just for Sharee and her future, but for all students in Pennsylvania.
But there is much work to be done both to ensure that districts across the state follow this new law and to address other situations where children are wrongfully excluded.
"I'm very thankful for ELC's help. I would not have been able to do this without
them. I now sleep better knowing that my daughter is able to continue with her
education. Please make sure it doesn't happen to anyone else's child."
- Sharee's father
ELC is working to ensure that districts across Pennsylvania follow the law so that all students benefit from this change.
Please donate today so that we can help more students like Sharee.