Today we continue our discussion of the case where a student posted a video on Snapchat depicting another student as a singer expressing an intent to kill, tie up, and eat other students. You read that right. When confronted about this, the student pointed out that what he posted was lifted from lyrics by a popular band, Cannibal Corpse. It was all a joke. He didn’t mean anything by it.
The school did not see the humor. It expelled the student, based on the student making a “true threat” and disrupting school by engaging in cyberbullying. Yesterday we explained why the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania concluded that this was not a “true threat” and therefore, was constitutionally protected free speech. Today, we turn our attention to the other issue: did the student’s action cause a material and substantial disruption of school?
There certainly was a reaction at the school, but the court did not think it met the “material and substantial” standard. The school reported the incident to the police, who promptly investigated and concluded that there was no threat. Hearing that, the superintendent sent an email to all parents, informing them that there had been a threat on social media, but it had been investigated, dealt with, and there was no further concern over safety.
That’s what any good superintendent would do, right? Maybe so. But the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania had an interesting take on this:
While J.S.’s memes no doubt impacted the school environment to some degree, we do not believe that they rose to the level of a substantial disruption required by Tinker. Initially, we note that the School District responsibly investigated the possibility of a threat by immediately contacting the police. Upon receipt of law enforcement’s investigation and conclusions that J.S. did not present a threat and that it was safe to attend school the next day, however, IT WAS THE SCHOOL DISTRICT THAT CREATED A DISRUPTION BY SENDING AN EMAIL TO PARENTS THAT A THREAT HAD BEEN RECEIVED. With respect to the students at school, the interruption was relatively minor….Importantly, there is no allegation that school was missed, classes or instruction interrupted, or the operation of the school was compromised. (Emphasis added).
So whatever disruption occurred was caused by the superintendent…not the student. But imagine the blowback the superintendent would have faced had he not sent that email.
Concerned Parent: “Do you mean to tell me that a student made a threat on social media and you didn’t even tell us about it?”
Cases like this engender that “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” attitude. But let’s add some context that might help. It’s unlikely that the court would have been troubled by a short suspension to give the school time to investigate. This kid, however, was “permanently expelled.” I don’t know what “permanently” means in Pennsylvania, but it sounds pretty long. Having imposed such a harsh penalty on the student, the school imposed on itself the burden of proving that the student’s meme was either a “true threat” or caused a major disruption of school. The school failed both tests.
The other point I would make is that sometimes state law requires a report to the community. What if this had happened in Texas? Would the superintendent be required to inform parents?
I don’t think so. We do have a statute (T.E.C. 37.113) that requires a notification to parents if the school receives “a bomb threat or terroristic threat relating to a campus or other district facility at which students are present.” What happened in this case, however, was not a “bomb threat” and it also fell short of a “terroristic threat” due to the lack of harmful intent.
This colorful and interesting case is J.S. v. Manheim Township School District, decided by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania on November 17, 2021.
Tomorrow we’ll tell you about another Pennsylvania case that went against the district.
DAWG BONE: SOMETIMES IT’S WISE TO BACK OFF ON LONG TERM DISCIPLINARY ACTION WHEN YOU KNOW ALL THE FACTS.
Got a question or comment for the Dawg? Let me hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tomorrow: a Snapchat snap about a song called Snap by a group called Spite.