Judge rules Belle Vernon students eligible for prom, graduation after underage drinking citation
A Westmoreland County judge on Tuesday halted the expulsion of eight Belle Vernon Area High School students cited this month for underage drinking at a charity event.
The preliminary injunction granted by Common Pleas Judge Harry Smail Jr. means the students will be allowed to return to school next week and attend district-sanctioned events, including Friday’s prom.
Charleroi Regional police Chief Eric Porter confirmed to the Tribune-Review that students had been cited for underage drinking at a Relay for Life event May 3 at the Charleroi School Distrcit campus in Fallowfield Township, located across the Monongahela River in Washington County.
“An administrator with Belle Vernon approached a school resource officer with concerns about the students,” Porter said. The students were cited after the resource officer administered breathalyzer tests, he said.
The students were sent home from the event by Belle Vernon administrative staff and told they were suspended from school, wrote attorney Brian Teslovich, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the students.
On May 6, Belle Vernon’s superintendent and principal called the students and parents to say they were required to attend individual disciplinary meetings two days later, Teslovich said.
Following those May 8 hearings, each student was issued a 45-day expulsion from school and prohibited from attending the prom and graduation, according to a lawsuit the students filed against the school district.
According to the students’ lawsuit, the Relay for Life event was organized by a group unaffiliated with Belle Vernon Area School District.
The students’ lawsuit claims administrators violated disciplinary procedures that resulted in the issuing of 45-day expulsions. They asked the judge to halt the expulsions and order the district to conduct new disciplinary hearings.
Smail on Tuesday conducted a closed-door hearing on the students’ attempt to overturn the school’s discipline. He said state privacy laws regarding juveniles required the court session to be confidential.
Smail granted the student’s request, saying in his three-page ruling that school officials did not properly notify the juveniles and their parents about the expulsion hearings.
“Barring the students from school will result in greater harm than allowing for their return pending resolution of this matter,” Smail wrote.
In his ruling, Smail questioned the district’s ability to issue discipline for an event not sanctioned by the school.
“With the court finding the Relay for Life to be a community event and specifically not a school-sponsored event, the court finds very limited availability for school district action in this matter,” Smail wrote.
The school district’s student disciplinary code, which is published online, states: “Furnishing, Selling, and/or possession of Drugs, Lookalike Substances or Alcohol … or Being Under the Influence of Drugs or Alcohol” is “behavior requiring immediate disciplinary action by an administrator” that could include out-of-school suspension or expulsion.
Longtime school Director Joe Grata, who is vice president of the Belle Vernon School Board, said last week that the students involved “would be dealt with equally … without any favoritism.”
“I feel it certainly gave the school district a black eye,” he said.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, [email protected] or via Twitter .