New school board policy restricts students’ actions outside classroom

PENNSYLVANIA — School administrators in a Pennsylvania town say they can punish students for actions taking place off school grounds following a recent school board decision.

The Central Columbia School Board voted 5-3 on Aug. 17 to allow school officials to punish students for words and actions causing disruption in school activities and policies, according to The Associated Press.

“They can take action even if a student is doing something at home with a parent’s knowledge,” said school board member Deborah Creasy, who voted against the new policy, to The Philadelphia Inquirer. “The school district is doing things that the government can’t do without a warrant.”

Superintendent Harry Mathias told the AP the new policy would help the district discipline students who use the Internet to threaten other students.

Recent events, including a student who skipped graduation after being beaten and harassed, forced the school board to act, board member Joseph Petruncio, who voted in favor of the new policy, told the AP.

According to the policy, students have the right to express themselves unless it “materially or substantially” interferes with other school policies or activities.

Off-campus and after hours speech “likely to materially and substantially” disrupt school activities is considered unprotected expression, according to the policy.

The policy says unprotected expression is defined as libel, advertising substances or materials to endanger students, threats against students or administrators, profanity in any form, encouraging violations of state law and school policy and speech or actions affecting normal school functions or property.

The school district referred a request for comment to the policy services division of the Pennsylvania School Board Association. The non-profit organization consults Pennsylvania school districts.

Policy services director Sharon Fissel said school districts were confused by recent court rulings involving school discipline during events outside school. The association issued a model policy in May 2005 to guide school districts.

The school district implemented a modified version of the model policy, Fissel said.

Fissel said association lawyers researched the legality of the model policy prior to its release, but did not guarantee the policy would withstand court challenges.

“I say bring ’em on,” Petruncio told the AP regarding potential lawsuits.

—by Kyle McCarthy, SPLC staff writer