Pennsylvania Record

Friday, September 20, 2019

Expelled student accused of threatening school shooting loses lawsuit against Rose Tree Media School District

Federal Court

By Charmaine Little | Jul 10, 2019

Penncrest High

PHILADELPHIA – A teenager accused of threatening to commit a school shooting had his case against Rose Tree Media School District dismissed by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on June 21.

Judge Eduardo C. Robreno ruled on the case after a student identified as "G.S." sued the school via his parents, also referred to by their initials, after he was expelled from Penncrest High School following the alleged threats made on social media.

G.S. then sued with claims that the school was retaliating against him after he prevailed in a federal rights case in a prior litigation. He also said this isn’t the first time the school made false accusations that he posed a threat to carry out a school shooting. 

G.S.’s expulsion came after he shared vulgar lyrics from a song called “Snap” from the band Spite on his Snapchat. The post read, “Everyone, I despise everyone! F*** you, eat s***, blackout, the world is a graveyard!” But it was the next line that caught officials’ attention. “All of you, I will f***ing kill off all of you! This is me, this is my, Snap!”

When the school’s @penncrest_students account was tagged by someone who reposted it, the post was identified as a threat. Hours later, Pennsylvania State Police spoke with G.S. and his parents. He was suspended for 10 days before being expelled after proceedings on Aug. 23, 2018.

G.S. sued with claims that the defendants infringed on his First and Fourteenth amendment rights (Counts I to VI), retaliated against him (Count VII), violated his due process rights (Count VIII) and that it defamed him multiple times dating back to 2015.

The defendants - Rose Tree Media School District, James Wigo, Eleanor Dimarino-Linnen, Ralph Harrison, Robert Salladino and Katherine White - moved for a judgment on the state law claims. They argued Count VIII was “a supposed appeal of the School Board’s adjudication expelling G.S. as a student" and pointed out that based on state law, a student who wants to challenge an expulsion has to file a case in a court of common pleas.

The court said it “cannot proceed to hear any of the federal claims in Counts I to VII or the state law claim in Count VIII,” due to limitations set out by the Supreme Court and Third Circuit case Younger v. Harris (1971). It added that it was forced to toss out the whole case because it didn’t have jurisdiction over the defamation claim.

The Younger abstention orders a federal court to withdraw from ruling on cases in which it could interfere with pending state lawsuits, which the court determined applies in this case. The defendants said the case is already linked to the state’s concern over educational affairs while G.S. said this case doesn’t threaten federalism. 

The court sided with the defendants and ruled that the Younger abstention is a factor. It pointed out the federal claims are about G.S.’s First Amendment rights, and Count VIII is connected to G.S.’s procedural and evidentiary rights concerning the expulsion hearing, while Count IX is related to G.S.’s rights concerning defamation.

“Although he has not appealed directly to the state court to argue that there was no substantive basis for his expulsion, he has brought such a challenge here in claims that would be made in a direct challenge in state court," Robreno wrote. "In other words, the substantive challenge to the expulsion has been brought in claims dressed up as section 1983 First Amendment claims.” 

Considering this, an appeal to expulsion should take place in the court of common pleas, Robreno ruled.

Robreno wrote that if the court continued with the case, it would be stepping on the toes of the state’s sovereignty and authority. Ultimately, the federal court determined it was not the best party to rule on the case and dismissed it, pointing out the defamation claim was being dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.

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