Appeals court upholds decision to let Belle Vernon students attend prom
Eight Belle Vernon Area High School students cited this month for underage drinking can attend the prom Friday night, a state appeals court ruled.
The state’s Commonwealth Court issued that order late Thursday afternoon as school district lawyers challenged a county judge’s ruling from earlier this week that halted the expulsions. The expulsions would have barred attendance at the dance and graduation ceremonies next month.
“We believe the court misinterpreted the requirements for the discipline process,” said school attorney Ira Weiss. “The district has significant concerns about the impact this case has and its ability to enforce its discipline rules.”
After a closed-door hearing, Westmoreland County Common Pleas Judge Harry Smail Jr. issued a preliminary injunction to prevent the school district from enforcing 45-day expulsions of eight students, including four seniors who are poised to graduate June 5.
School officials said underage drinking citations issued to eight girls who attended a Relay for Life event May 3 in Charleroi warranted the expulsions that were doled out at internal discipline hearings last week.
Tom Rodriguez’s 18-year-old daughter, last fall’s homecoming queen, was one of the expelled students. He said the legal challenge filed against the district was in response to what he said was inconsistent discipline compared with shorter suspensions previously issued in other cases throughout the year.
“This wasn’t about getting them out of trouble. It was about getting them a punishment that was fair and what has been done in the past,” Rodriguez said. “If they had instituted 10-day suspensions, our girls would not be going to the prom and we would be OK with it. For the seniors, walking in graduation is the bigger deal.”
Weiss denied the claim that shorter suspensions had previously been issued in similar cases to the eight students cited this month.
“The district has had a specific policy with regard to discipline over the years and I’m aware of no selective enforcement of any rules,” Weiss said.
Lawyers for the district and the students Thursday separately filed court documents with Smail seeking to have him clarify his ruling and its impact on the prom. The judge’s ruling ordered students to return class Monday. Smail wrote that students are permitted to participate in “normal school activities.”
In making that ruling, the judge said it is likely the students would win their lawsuit seeking to overturn the expulsions based on claims that the district did not follow proper procedures in doling out the punishment. Smail also questioned whether the district had the right to punish students for an incident that did not occur school property and was not sponsored by the district.
Meanwhile, the district is seeking an expedited hearing before Commonwealth Court on whether the injunction will stand, a ruling that could still impact the student’s ability to participate in the graduation ceremony. No date is scheduled for the appeal hearing.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, [email protected] or via Twitter .