Fox Chapel Area student's suspension for knife abides by Pa. school code

Tawnya Panizzi
| Friday, Sept. 20, 2013

Zero-tolerance policies mean that some students like Fox Chapel Area High School junior David Schaffner automatically might be punished, even if they accidentally bring a weapon to school and then try to do the right thing, education officials say.

“I thought I would hand it to the security guard to hold,” Schaffner, 16, of O'Hara told the Tribune-Review in an interview in his home.

District administrators said they followed the Pennsylvania school code when they suspended Schaffner for 10 days on Monday for turning in a pocketknife to security officers at the Foxes' football game on Sept. 13.

“When there is a weapon on school property, we must follow the steps that are required by law,” said Bonnie Berzonski, spokeswoman for the Fox Chapel Area School District. “This is a responsibility we have to our community, students and staff.”

Students who bring a weapon to school or to school-related activities will be expelled for one year, according to Fox Chapel Area's student handbook. Its policy echoes the state school code, but the superintendent can modify the punishment.

Fox Chapel Area Superintendent Anne Stephens and school board members could not be reached for comment about whether Schaffner's punishment will be revised.

Many schools adopted zero-tolerance policies as a result of the mass shooting in 1999 at Columbine High School in Colorado, where two students fatally shot 13 people. Such policies require automatic punishment for certain acts, such as possessing a weapon on school grounds.

Schaffner sat at his dining room table on Thursday afternoon, studying Algebra II with a tutor. He said he never imagined the firestorm that would follow when he realized his hunting knife was in his pocket and turned it in.

“I don't look at it as a weapon. It's a tool that I use for hunting and working in the woods,” he said.

His attorney, Phil DiLucente, is pressing Fox Chapel Area school officials to revoke the suspension. Safety was Schaffner's intent when he turned the knife over to security, DiLucente said, and the youth did not intentionally bring a weapon to the game.

“He voluntarily turned it in, did the right thing — and he's now being punished,” DiLucente said.

Statewide, the number of students discovered to have weapons in Pennsylvania schools has fallen slightly since 2007-08.

About 2,900 students were found with weapons in the 2011-12 school year, the most recent year for which numbers are available, said the state Department of Education. Fox Chapel Area reported just one student with a weapon — a “cutting instrument” — that school year.

Nearly 300 students were found with weapons in all of Allegheny County's schools in 2011-12, most commonly knives and “cutting instruments.”

The state education department does not track the outcome of individual cases, but a spokesperson said students elsewhere have been suspended for inadvertently bringing weapons to school and that punishment varies.

A Penn Hills High School student was suspended for three days in March 2012 after his mother said he forgot to remove a pair of art class scissors from his backpack.

In 2009, security guards at Penn Hills discovered an eyebrow shaver in a freshman's handbag. The school board voted to expel the then-15-year-old student for 45 days.

Deer Lakes School District revised its weapons policy as a result of an incident that made national news in 1998. Jordan Locke, then 5, was suspended for one day for bringing a plastic ax to the Halloween parade at Curtisville Primary Center as part of his firefighter costume.

Tawnya Panizzi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-782-2121, ext. 2, or

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